Vermont Business Magazine “Ground: A Reprise of Photographs from the Farm Security Administration,” a project by photographer and University of Vermont professor of art Bill McDowell, recently earned accolades as one of 2016’s top publications. “Mother Jones” included “Ground” on its list of standout photo books of 2016, and “Artnet News” placed the volume among its top 10 art books of 2016.
McDowell’s book brings together photographs from the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA), an effort that employed famed photographers such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. But the photos collected in “Ground” never saw publication at the time. Rejected by an FSA bureaucrat, the negatives were invalidated with a hole punch. The black circle created by that hole when a print was made—like a black sun over a summer field or a rude intrusion placed squarely over a farmer’s face—piqued McDowell’s interest. “I found that there were so many of them that were intriguing images because they were simultaneously representational and abstract,” McDowell says. “This black hole created an abstraction and a really palpable tension.”
Whereas the intact FSA photos only deal with the past, in McDowell’s opinion, the killed photos connect with our age through that black circle. “It got me thinking about the parallels between the time that we live in and the Great Depression and post-Depression times. There are some chilling parallels in terms of the impact on the average person in society,” he says.
The pieces that McDowell has worked with—in some instances printing the entire frame, in others cropping in to place the hole dead-center—are now the product of three unlikely collaborators: the original photographer in the field, a government staffer simply doing his duty and a contemporary artist re-contextualizing the image.