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Culture & Communication

Bill McDowell: Ground

A Reprise of Photographs from the Farm Security Administration

Introduction by Jock Reynolds, Lyrics by Rosanne Cash, Poem by Wendell Berry, Interview by DJ Hellerman

 

In Ground (Daylight Books, April 2016), Bill McDowell has assembled photographs made from the « killed » negatives of noted practitioners who were commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1934-1943 to document the plight of poor farmers in America during the Great Depression. The FSA photography division was run by Roy Stryker, who routinely defaced FSA negatives with a hole punch to prevent them from being printed, much to the consternation of the photographers.

McDowell first encountered a print made from a FSA « killed » negative in a magazine article about Michael Lesy’s book Long Time Coming (2002) about FSA Photography. He had a powerful, almost visceral reaction to the image. He was struck by how the presence and placement of the black hole imbued the picture made over sixty years ago with a sense of immediacy and a new visual vocabulary that could be used poetically in the current moment.

McDowell downloaded the photographs for his project from the Library of Congress website which is home to the FSA’s archive of over 145,000 images. The FSA photographers represented in Ground are: Paul Carter, Walker Evans, Theodor Jung, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, and Marion Post Wolcott. The book includes several photographs from 1936 that Walker Evans had made for « Let Us Now Praise Famous Men », the book he published with James Agee.

  

McDowell organized the pictures of sharecroppers, farm laborers, homesteaders, resettlement officials, homes and farmland according to how and what they represent and the manner in which the black hole rendered by Stryker’s « violent » act abstracts them.
In Ground, the hole is portrayed as a contemporary mark, current with the practice of intervention, alteration, and appropriation. This provides the book’s haunting photographs a temporal duality in which they present the post-Depression era through a contemporary filter. In our continuing struggle to recover from 2008’s Great Recession these photographs speak to now, even as they confer on past government programs, race and class, damaged and bountiful land, drought, flood, and exodus.

  

In response to DJ Hellerman’s question about how ideas of authorship, ownership, and propriety relate to the images in Ground, McDowell says:
« These photographs are owned, technically, by the American people … I like it that each photograph in Ground is the result of three separate acts of picture making: the original photographer’s deliberate compositional and contextual choices, Roy Stryker’s hole punch, and my recontextualization. Since one can’t assign sole authorship to these photographs, it’s possible to view this project as an interactive body of work influenced both by photographic conventions of the 1930s and by those of today. »

 

Ground includes lyrics written by Rosanne Cash, whose father, Johnny Cash, grew up in a home in Arkansas built by the FSA, and a poem about a man putting his hands into the ground by Wendell Berry. The book also presents an interview with McDowell conducted by DJ Hellerman, curator and director of exhibitions at Burlington City Arts in Burlington, Vermont, and an introduction by Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery.

About the Photographer and Author (billmcdowellphoto.com)
Bill McDowell is the 2013 recipient of the Peter S. Reed Foundation Grant and has received the Aaron Siskind Individual Photographer’s Fellowship, the New York Foundation on the Arts Photography Fellowship, as well as many other artist grants. He is a professor in the Department of Art & Art History at the University of Vermont.
McDowell’s photographs are represented in collections at the Yale University Art Gallery, the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the Deichtorhallen Museum, Hamburg, Germany, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Light Work, Syracuse, NY, Wellesley College, Massachusetts, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York, and the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY.
His project, Banner of Light: The Lily Dale Photographs, was published by Light Work in Contact Sheet 96, and his photographs have appeared in Art in America, Art Issues, The New Yorker, Russian Esquire, Guernica, Spot, and Exposure.

ABOUT THE PUBLISHER:
Daylight is a non-profit organization dedicated to publishing art and photography books. By exploring the documentary mode along with the more conceptual concerns of fine art, Daylight’s uniquely collectible publications work to revitalize the relationship between art, photography, and the world-at-large. For more information, visit daylight books.org.

BOOK DETAILS:
Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1942084129
8.75 x 11.75 inches
176 pages; duotone photographs

Captions, from top to bottom, left to right:
Cover image: Homesteader at Roanoke Farms, North Carolina. 1938. John Vachon; Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota. 1937. Russell Lee.
Five-bedroom house, Meridian (Magnolia) Homesteads, Mississippi. 1935. Arthur Rothstein.; Lumber mill worker, Lowell, VT. 1937. Arthur Rothstein.
Sharecropper and dog. North Carolina. 1938. John Vachon.; Untitled. Alabama. 1936. Walker Evans.
Getting fields ready for spring planting. North Carolina.1936. Carl Mydans.; Resettlement officials. Maryland. 1935. Arthur Rothstein

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