William E Jones, Punctured, 2010
William E. Jones, Punctured, 2010

Punctured (2010), William E. Jones’ video projection featuring Farm Security Administration/ Works Projects Administration photos “killed” by the program’s director Roy Stryker is an autopsy or an investigative report, bringing to light pictures that were never meant to be seen.  It is also a meditation on the nature of archives, and on the ability – or inability- of pictures consigned to purgatory to speak.  Jones, in a roughly 5 minute looped video, shows us images that were rejected by Stryker.  We are left to ponder why they were killed, and what it means that they can be seen again.  The mutilated images remain compelling despite their scars, and Punctured suggests a kind of secret history of the Great Depression and of the WPA, the kind of secrecy that becomes possible whenever part of an archive is suppressed.

It was not so long ago that photographers and editors editing film would use a hole punch to indicate a selected frame, clipping a small half circle out of the edge of the frame by the sprocket holes where the frame number and film info had been burned into the emulsion during manufacturing.  Stryker was more ruthless with his hole punch, “killing” the work of his photographers by punching a hole directly through the negative image. Unsurprisingly, the photographers objected to this practice, which Stryker ended in 1939. Many of the punched negatives survive in the US Library of Congress FSA archives.

In Punctured we zoom rapidly out of the center of the black hole punched into each of some 135 images made from 1935 to 1939 as part of the FSA documentation project, images by Walker Evans and Marion Post Wolcott, and by Theodor Jung, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn and John Vachon. Each zoom lasts about two seconds, enough time to notice some detail of the image but not to take in the image as a whole. We are not always shown the entire image as Stryker made his holes in different spots on the negatives, but Jones’ zoom always positions the hole in the center of the frame.

William E Jones, Punctured, 2010
William E. Jones, Punctured, 2010

Jones, who in his other work has explored the properties of decaying media in his repurposing of archival footage, has in Punctured chosen to use a direct digital projection to create as transparent an effect as possible.  The piece is mastered as a QuickTime movie, bypassing film completely to avoid softening effects of film.  The zoom effect is not the result of a camera movement, but is actually a rapid slideshow of a series of ever larger crops made in image editing software.  The sequence of zooming images is a continuous digital loop; there is no sense of reaching the end of the sequence and beginning again.

As a result of these choices, the projection is characterised by a crispness that looks and feels different from film and most video. The sharpness and immediacy invite us to directly access the subjects represented in the images even as the subject of the piece is clearly the images themselves, their materiality foregrounded by the uneven reflection of light on the rough edge of the punched hole. Speed and motion and the sense of continuously moving backwards together make for a vertiginous experience.

Jones spoke about the piece last week at the opening of Forum 65: Jones, Koester, Nashashibi/ Skaer: Reanimation at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh where Punctured is one of three pieces. Punctured, Jones explained, is about the “Interface between image making and power…  what images authority gives us and what we do with them.” Jones’ effort is to unsettle those relationships and to this end Punctured is articulate in its explorations of the way that archives are constructed, of the FSA archive specifically as the product of Stryker’s judgments, and of the possibility that an image, even when ostensibly rendered unusable, may still have a second life if any remnant of the image remains.

William E Jones, Punctured, 2010
William E. Jones, Punctured, 2010

By resurrecting dead images Jones draws attention both to the act of their destruction, evidenced in the circular scar the killed images share, and to the persistence of the image despite its destruction. This raises the question of what it takes to destroy an image short of obliterating it either through physical violence or by emptying out your computer’s recycling bin. We’ve seen Henryk Ross’s secret archives emerge to describe life in Łódź under Nazi occupation, Marc Garanger’s identity pictures take on new life as a record of witnessing of the imposition of French colonial power on Algerian women, and Georges Didi-Huberman’s efforts to unpack the meaning of the Auschwitz Sonderkommando images. Robert Capa’s lost D-Day images come to mind as well, images that were inadvertently destroyed in a darkroom mishap before they could be seen, further enhancing the value of the ones that survived and the mythologies surrounding them.  Had Stryker been killing digital images today, there might be no evidence that the images ever existed.  Yet digitally reproduced images, once circulating, are notoriously difficult to contain.

What really makes Punctured work, though, is Jones’ recognition that documentary photography has, as he says, an “intuitive appeal”, one that he argues is not well-served by what he describes as the distanced and ironic documentary photography that circulates through the art establishment. The FSA images are irresistible despite the punctures and watching them recede in succession, I found myself trying to see around the black circle, taking it as a blind spot in my vision as there was so much detail and particularity to be found in the rest of the image.

Many of the images are as rich as anything produced by the FSA and the style and subjects will be familiar to anyone who has seen the work of these photographers. There are short sequences of images, pairs and threes of an elderly couple, a girl with a doll. There are street scenes, workers, girls in matching dresses in a field near a farmhouse. When asked whether he had discerned any patterns in Stryker’s judgments while searching out the killed images, Jones responded that it seemed that Stryker disliked subjects looking at the camera. One figure in a group shot was out of focus.  Too arty. Too modern. Or just blurry. Stryker killed an image of a man looking at a picture of a transgendered performer.  He systematically killed images that John Vachon took of himself in hotel rooms while on the road.

Walker Evans 1936, Floyd Burroughs Jr. Hale County, AL, Library of Congress
Walker Evans, 1936.  Floyd Burroughs, Jr., Hale County, Alabama. Library of Congress.

For me, the most jarring moment in the projection is when an image of the Burroughs children that Walker Evans photographed in Alabama flies out of the black circle. This is part of a series of pictures Evans made while on loan to Fortune magazine; the project, co-authored with James Agee would later become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  The children are immediately recognisable, not by their faces so much as by their clothing, the wall and the dirt, and seeing the picture of them with a hole through it feels at first like a violation of something sacrosanct.

But aside from the historical benefit of understanding Evans’ working processes, don’t the images suppressed in an edit make the edit that much stronger? The FSA produced an extraordinary number of pictures, put to many purposes and until now the killed pictures were not part of that legacy. The fetishisation of every scrap of detail surrounding an iconic work feels in some sense like celebrity worship. What is the value of the punched Evans image in the Library of Congress archive until someone like William Jones comes along to use it for a commentary like Punctured?

William E Jones, Punctured, 2010
William E. Jones, Punctured, 2010

I left the Reanimation opening at the same time as a photographer who, passing out of the doors of the museum, ran to a black and yellow custom car stopped at the traffic light, made some pictures of it, and then spun around to photograph a woman with a feather in her hair mounting her bicycle onto the rack on the front of a city bus. As I caught up with him, he turned to me and said “Did you see that? I got the car and I got the girl. Better than the lecture I just saw.”  I said that I had just come from the opening too and had enjoyed it. He didn’t buy it; “I like those WPA photos!” he said wistfully as he walked away, shaking his head.

Did he mean that by bringing the killed pictures to light, Jones was celebrating their desecration? If so, I think he was wrong, and that Jones was trying to do for the documentary archive something similar to what so many documentary photographers have tried to do for the world that they photograph.

Leo Hsu

William E. Jones

Punctured, 2010
DVD; sequence of digital files, black-and-white, silent, 4:56 min., looped
Images courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles