Under a black sun farmworkers labor in fields. They harvest crops oblivious to the strange eclipse in the skies above them. On closer inspection the sun is perhaps a spot on the lens. Or a camera fault, or perhaps a mistake in printing. There are more photographs, but here the faces of the farmworkers have been devoured by this black spot—eaten like a cancer. It’s now apparent these black dots, these black holes, have been deliberately made.
During the 1930’s Great Depression the US Government set up the Farm Security Administration to help combat the country’s rural poverty. As part of the FSA’s remit was a photography project set up by Roy Stryker to document the lives of the people who lived and worked on the land.
Stryker hired some of the best photographers of the day such as Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Edwin and Louise Rosskam, among many, many others. The photographers were briefed as to what the FSA wanted documented. When the rolls of film were sent back from locations across the USA, Stryker rigorously examined each and every negative. His system for discarding images was brutal—he used a hole punch to pierce any negative he didn’t like—making it unusable.
It is not known on exactly what grounds Stryker rejected an image. Was it aesthetic reasons? Bad teeth, ugly people? Political? Images of farm life that did not coincide with the government’s desires narrative? Whichever—of the 164,000 developed negatives, only around 77,000 were made available for use. That’s a helluva lot of rejected photographs.
Stryker’s vandalism killed many historic and irreplaceable photographs. Of those that remain, Stryker’s hole punch handiwork has created strange yet still compelling images. Some conspiracy theorists suggest the photos were censored because of UFOs, or strange deformities, or odd background figures—and similar flights of fancy. In truth they were probably censored because the reality of human deprivation never sits easy with a government’s self-image.
I think one can safely assume that artist John Baldessari is well aware of these images.