In Ground, 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 noted 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, and include several photographs from 1936 that Walker Evans had made for Let Us Know Praise Famous Men, the book he published with James Agee.
Bill McDowell is a photographer living in Plattsburgh, New York. 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. McDowell’s photographs are represented in collections at the Yale University Art Gallery, the George Eastman Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among others. He is a professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Vermont. McDowell participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program in 1995.