Killing The Negative: A Conversation with Joel Daniel Phillips
On the eve of Joel Daniel Phillips' beautiful new body of work, Killing the Negative, on view at Hashimoto Contemporary NYC by appointment from October 17—November 7, Jennifer Rizzo spoke with the artist about the project and story behind the show. Phillips new series of charcoal and graphite drawings is a meditation "on Government-censored photographs by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression." That this is the artist's 5th solo show with the gallery and perhaps his most poignant politically made for a wonderful conversation, and a special moment for both America and the artist.
Jennifer Rizzo: Your latest body of work, titled Killing the Negative, is focused on imagery from the Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) commissioned photographs during the Great Depression. What drew you to this imagery?
Joel Daniel Phillips: One quiet morning in early 2019 I was sitting drinking my coffee and reading about WPA documentary films when I stumbled on a photograph by Walker Evans that punched me in the gut. Right in the center of the image there was a giant, black, Baldessari-esque circle marring the photograph. I was immediately intrigued, and upon zooming in, I realized that the black void wasn’t an addition to the image, but rather a subtraction. Someone had taken a hole punch to the original negative.
Much of my work revolves around questions of truth, historical amnesia, and the veracity of the stories we tell ourselves about our collective pasts. “Killing the Negative” is a new series of drawings in response to a subset of the Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) foundational commissioned photographs of the Great Depression. These images are of course, well known, and images like “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange have become some of the most recognizable and important images in the American photographic lexicon. Less known, however, is the process by which these images were selected for publication: Roy Stryker was the head of the FSA, and was tasked with deciding which of the eventual 145,000 commissioned photographs would see the light of day. For the first 4 years of the project, many images he deemed unworthy were “killed” by punching a hole in the original negative.
I became fascinated with Stryker’s destructive editing process as a commentary on truth and the veracity of the historical record. This enormous act of editing bears more import than we know to our understanding of our history. It calls into question our reliance on this record, bringing into startling clarity the power that a single individual had to shape the collective understanding of an entire nation. When translated into drawings, the physical subtraction created by the hole-punch acts as a further visual addition, an indelible record of the shaping of the narrative, with the black, circular void both destroying the original image and simultaneously creating an entirely new one.
The larger contemporary political conversation is one that makes many of the questions from the era of the Great Depression deeply resonant; questions of race, class, labor and compensation, land ownership, stratified socio-economics and ecological protection are embedded in these original censored FSA photographs. These almost 100-year-old images are astonishingly contemporary in nature, and when re-contextualized as a series of drawings, call into question our assumptions about the truth of our collective past, while simultaneously reflecting on the fabricated foundations of historical narratives in the modern political sphere.
By drawing these killed negatives, you are giving them a new life, placing a spotlight on images that otherwise may have gone unseen. You had so many images to choose from, how did you narrow down which photographs you wanted to draw?
I’ve been working towards this exhibition for over a year now, and the process started with spending literal days wading through the Library of Congress’s digital archive, as well as visiting the collection in person. Eventually, I selected 400 or so favorites from more than 4000 hole-punched photographs. I then printed all of these favorites out at a small scale and let them breathe on my studio wall for a few months--every once in a while I would feel like an image stuck out, and I would notate on the bottom of the frame that I liked it. After a couple of months, I ended up with a more condensed shortlist of 100 some images that I KNEW I had to draw: images that spanned the gamut from portraits to landscapes. To be honest, I was really attempting to try to follow my instincts with the selection process and not be too curatorial or intentional. The body of work is all about narrative, power, and the editorial process--I wanted to try to avoid adding to the layers of editing as much as possible.
Last but not least, I started working through this shortlist, one drawing at a time (I’m currently on number 29). I picked each reference individually, basing it on a gut response to what spoke to me each day, and purposefully avoiding thinking about them as a unit too much. Working through this process during Covid, selecting and drawing images from the Great Depression was both uplifting and terrifying.
You’ve been scaling down recently, but are also known for working in a large, life-size scale. What are some of the challenges in working in these varying sizes?
I absolutely love working large scale, and I think initially I would have made all of these drawings gigantic if it had been possible. However, this body of work seemed to call for a larger narrative scope, and creating work at a smaller scale allowed me to explore more images in a shorter amount of time. All of that said, though, I ended up being really happy that I was working on some drawings scaled down--It was actually really enjoyable switching back and forth between the small works (13in x 17in each) and the larger drawings (40in x 60in and up). It forced me to reconsider my mark making each time I switched, as well as the ways the viewer would tend to interact with different scales. More importantly, I think that it allowed me to create an exhibition that as a whole, builds a more intimate experience for the viewer, pulling them in close to the gallery walls and then forcing them to step back out and away.
The new body of work brings questions of race, class and labor to the spotlight, issues which seem to be just as as prevalent today. What are you hoping to convey to the viewer with the new works?
I think that as Americans we have a very particular relationship with our history. There are many wonderful things about this country that make it truly unique. However, I think that our sometimes all consuming narrative of American exceptionalism often keeps us from addressing the complex, problematic and violent histories that are the reality of our past. In short, America as a whole has an amnesiac relationship with its past. Further, I think our narrative of exceptionalism also means that we have a tendency to see historical events as having HAD to happen a certain way, since they did happen that way. These drawings are about the complexity of the narrative within a particular historical moment. Events that we tend to see as almost predestined when we look backwards, were at the time they happened, actually complex events that were hotly debated, argued and voted over.
If there is any larger take away I want viewers to have from this exhibition is an examination of the complexity of truth - the commissioned Farm Security Administration photos are images that American society (by and large) has accepted as being definitive of a very important moment in our history. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photograph is likely the image that comes to mind for most Americans when they think of the Great Depression. However, when the black voids of Roy Stryker’s hole punch are placed front and center, the reality of just how much power that a single, white man had to shape the narrative re-frames and re-defines the entire discussion.
When I started on this body of work last year I had a general sense that there were many, many overlaps between the contemporary political/social landscape and the Great Depression. I had recently re-read the Grapes of Wrath and I felt like there were moments in that book that could have been written yesterday. Then, when Covid hit in March, we were all talking about whether we were entering a second Great Depression and there was suddenly a whole new layer to the works. This quote from the book felt particularly apt:
"And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.” —John Steinbeck, the Grapes of Wrath, 1939
At the end of the day, though, I am most interested in an examination of our larger societal construction of truth. We are in the midst of a moment where we are collectively coming to terms with just how much our systems have failed many Americans, particularly Americans of color. At the same time that we are re-examining this complex history, and perhaps in part, because of this moment, fake news is a constant buzzword. We are, perhaps for the first time since its invention, incredibly sceptical of the truth of the photographic image. We are also questioning the institutions that we have turned to in the past to separate fact from fiction. It might sound strange, but I personally feel hope in the midst of this chaos--we have in front of us an opportunity to re-examine and re-shape many of the stories and systems that we have taken for granted since America’s founding. Many, many Americans are wrestling with these questions, and this wrestling creates an opportunity to examine and learn from our past. Dorothea Lange kept a quote by Francis Bacon on the door to her darkroom that seemed to perfectly capture my interest in the layers of truth and fiction embedded in these images.
“The contemplation of things as they are
without error or confusion
without substitution or imposture
is in itself a nobler thing
than a whole harvest of inventions.”
Hashimoto Contemporary NYC will be open by appointment from Saturday, October 17th to Saturday, November 7th. To schedule a viewing click here.