William E. Jones Interview

“Punctured” a reformatted version of the 2009 film “Killed”
http://vimeo.com/15261007

William E. Jones
Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration.
New York: PPP Editions, 2010
[ICP library call number : TR179.5.J669 K55 2010]
The book contains two essays written by Wiliam E. Jones: “Puncture Wounds” and “Perversion”

In Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration William E. Jones explores the Library of Congress’s FSA archive and reproduces 157 images “killed” by Roy Stryker’s one-man photographic death panel. We see images stamped (or rather punctured) with Roy Stryker’s authority and seemingly random touch as Stryker registered his disapproval of an image by aggressively taking a hole puncher to the negative, ensuring that it could never be subsequently printed. The possible motivations for Stryker’s destruction Jones discusses in his accompanying essay “Puncture Wounds”.  In his other essay in the book “Perversion” Jones investigates the queer presence in the FSA photographers which he feels must have been documented, if only unconsciously or accidentally. This is a book which provokes multiple meanings: It is beautiful and well constructed. It has meaning in that it is an attempt to obscure meaning. In the context of Stryker’s dominance over the image it is menacing. It could also be seen as being erotic, holes often are. It is a book which is both political and funny.  Simply put, it is a great idea, a big idea and an important idea, well executed.

MC: Your use of the FSA archives has really brought to our attention a largely unknown cache of images. Could you explain to us your use of the archives and what it means for you to use publicly accessible image archives. How many hours did you spend on this project? Did you have any special access to the LC archives or are they available for all?

WEJ: The images that appear in “Killed” are all available to the public in one form or another, most of them for free.  Finding the photographs I used for the book took a vast amount of time, since the FSA’s “killed” negatives are almost never identified in a useful way on the Library of Congress website.

MC: So William did this piece start as a book or a film? Which form normally comes first in your practice? Which is more important to you? What are you? – that is – would you describe yourself as a filmmaker, writer, photographer or artist primarily? All of the above.

WEJ: “Killed” began as a movie, but I had wanted to do a fine photography book for a number of years, and these pictures lent themselves very well to that purpose.  The images are absolutely canonical – anyone serious about the history of photography learns about the FSA – but in their ruined state, they are outside the canon at the same time.

The collaborative work with Andrew Roth was as smooth and unproblematic as any I have ever done, at least partly because this is a book that simply had to be made.  I couldn’t believe that no one in the field of academic art history had yet devoted a book to the “killed” FSA negatives.  I suppose it took an outsider to make the first move, so to speak.  While we were preparing the exhibition at his gallery, Andrew told me that I am “difficult to pin down” as an artist, and I agree completely.  If it is ever possible to define my work in a brief, totalizing description, like a “high concept” movie, then the whole endeavor has become static.  My ambition is to unsettle or subvert unthinking and habitual ways of seeing.  This is a task for an artist.  It doesn’t matter what medium I use.

MC: How do you think Stryker would react to this work? How would he feel about his destructive touch being documented, examined and analyzed? How do you think he would then feel about this then being turned into art?

WEJ: Roy Stryker’s ideas about the FSA changed over the course of the agency’s existence, and especially later, when photographers of the Historical Section were recognized as artists.  He never gave a detailed explanation for his killing negatives, but it’s clear from his actions that he thought of himself as a kind of government photo editor.  His practice, brutal as it seems today, was a fairly common way to treat photography in journalistic and commercial contexts.  After the FSA was absorbed into the OWI (Office of War Information) and he lost his job, Stryker fought to have the Library of Congress store the entire collection, because he realized its aesthetic and historical value.  This was a selfless thing to do, and incidentally, he preserved the evidence of his mistakes for posterity.

If Roy Stryker were around today, I would be able to ask him questions about what he thought he was doing, and I suspect that I would moderate the rather polemical tone of my essays as a result.  I can’t imagine he would know what to make of “Killed”.  The book is more a work of conceptual art than a fine photography book.  I take indifferent or mystified reactions from traditionalists as confirmation of this.  Consensus has shifted so far in the direction of the aesthetic that some consider any photo book but a history of great men and their masterpieces just a trivial diversion, in other words, a waste of time.  I think this is a lazy attitude.  Fortunately, the tendency to appreciate vernacular or offbeat photography is very strong these days, to the benefit of the historian.  If anyone’s granny can make a compelling photograph, aren’t the foundations of the aesthetic enterprise of photography threatened?  I hope so.

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MC: Can socially committed documentary photography be art? Can it exist in both realms?

WEJ: Socially committed documentary photography can certainly exist in the realm of art, but the extent to which it can function as a commodity – the object of collectors’ whims and the curatorial fashions that relate to them – is an open question.  Nearly a century has passed since R. Mutt’s urinal appeared at the Armory Show, so in an abstract sense, anything is possible.  In practice, there is a lot of “kidding the product,” making the spectator feel smart while truly disturbing or provoking no one.  When contemporary spectators express the opinion, “That’s not art” – and one does hear this comment with surprising frequency among supposedly sophisticated audiences – usually money or social status is at risk.  In other words, the distinctions between “art” and “documentary” are generally questions of taste and all its attendant anxieties, rather than questions of aesthetic philosophy.

MC: This past year has been an extremely busy one for you. With lots of travel and exhibitions:

WEJ: In 2010, I had a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, New York.  I had solo exhibitions at Andrew Roth Gallery, New York; Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan; and Galerie Veneklasen/Werner, Berlin; I also curated a show for V/W called Continuous Projections.  In early 2011, I will have retrospectives at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna and at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in Germany.  I will have a solo exhibition (opening on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday) at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, and “Killed” will be in a group exhibition called The Spectacular of the Vernacular at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, opening in late January, 2011.

MC: What projects are you currently working on? Do you think you’ll ever return to being the still photographer [using a camera] as you were at the beginning of your career where you were photographing Vernacular architecture in southern California?

WEJ: In fact, such a return has been proposed to me by Jens Hoffmann, curator at the CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco.  When we first met about ten years ago, I had just completed The Golden State, the series of photographs you mention.  Now Jens is curating an exhibition inspired by Walker Evans’ American Photographs and Roy Stryker’s FSA shooting scripts, and he has invited me to participate.

A fundamental issue of the exhibition is how documentary photography can be relevant today, in the midst of another economic depression.  In effect, I have been asked to make good on the claims of my essay in the “Killed” book, “Puncture Wounds,” which laments the relative lack of status the documentary form suffers at the historical moment when it would seem most appropriate for a revival.  The problem is that our understanding of the document and of the ontology of the photographic image have undergone major transformations in the last 75 years.  How much has changed in society is another matter.  I can cite two pertinent statements contemporaneous to the FSA, though from another cultural context: Bertold Brecht’s reminder that a photograph of the Krupp factory or the AEG says practically nothing about these institutions, i. e., it does not constitute a commentary on exploitation; and Walter Benjamin’s assertion that a reproduction of a photograph cannot function alone – it requires a caption.  Many years later, the need for captions and the need to decry exploitation are as pressing as ever.

For my contribution to the Wattis exhibition, I plan to return to the place where I grew up in Ohio.  I realized a few weeks ago that the opening of the exhibition (September 29, 2011) roughly coincides with the 20th anniversary of my first film, Massillon, which is named for my home town.  During the film’s production, the place still had a significant number of picturesque industrial ruins which I spent many hours filming.  Now that the industrial economy has been almost completely obliterated in the region, what are people doing?  Why have so many of them turned Republican?  What do the (more or less abandoned) cities in the area look like?  I began documenting Massillon in 1983-84, while I was studying photography.  I want to return to the places I photographed then to see what’s left.  I should also add that Stark County, Ohio (where Massillon is) has voted for the winner in every presidential election for the last 200 years.  Political scientists and journalists look to the place for indications of what is happening in “the heartland” of America, and I am intensely curious to see what I can find that might predict the results of the elections in 2012.

MC: What are your artistic influences at the moment?

WEJ: A recent exhibition that had a profound effect on me was the Iannis Xenakis show that the Drawing Center mounted earlier this year.  (It is currently at MOCA.)  The only music composer I have ever worked with, Jean-Pierre Bédoyan, performed on Xenakis recordings under his supervision.  At the beginning of our collaboration, Jean-Pierre told me that he didn’t compose melodies, and at the time – over 10 years ago – I had no idea what he meant.  When I saw the Xenakis show, I finally understood.  After two or three years of making silent movies, I would like Jean-Pierre to score new works for me.

I have been asked to co-curate my retrospective at Oberhausen with Olaf Möller, and our screening programs will intersperse my works with those that have been important to me.  We plan to include films by Kurt Kren, Peter Roehr, Ivan Ladislav Galeta, Rose Lowder, and Ernst Schmidt, Jr. in the mix.

MC: What are you currently reading?

I have just read Paul Verhoeven’s book Jesus of Nazareth.  Yes, the director of Showgirls and Starship Troopers is a learned and perceptive biblical scholar.  He doesn’t believe in Jesus’ miracles or resurrection, and unimpeded by church dogma (or really any religious faith), he set about determining what Jesus the historical figure actually did and said.  I find the man who fomented revolt against tyranny but who later embraced pacifism, and whose Kingdom of God was nothing short of a radical new moral vision of a just world, much more appealing than the Christianized Jesus who walked on water and cured leprosy.  This book relates to one of my favorite movies, The Milky Way, which is a picaresque tale of sorts, and also a compendium of heretical thought.  (I don’t know why Verhoeven, whose original intention was to make a Jesus film, neglects to mention Buñuel’s movie in his list of previous efforts in the field.)  I especially love the scene in which Jesus is about to shave, and Mary tells him, “Keep the beard.  It looks good on you.”

About matthew carson

Librarian & Archivist at the International Center of Photography
This entry was posted in Interviews, New Acquisitions and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to William E. Jones Interview

  1. Pingback: LUCY SLOSS › William E Jones

  2. Pingback: Roy Stryker and the accidental avante garde | jeremy jeffs

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