Killing the Negative: Poetic Interventions

While looking through materials on Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects, visual artist Joel Daniel Phillips stumbled upon an image—a 1936 photograph by Walker Evans with a gaping black hole in the center. This chance discovery of a “killed negative” led Phillips and poet Quraysh Ali Lansana into a collaborative project, Killing the Negative: Poetic Interventions, that explores complex intersections of representation, truth, and power—crucial concepts that are at the center of our contemporary society.

With the stated goal of “introducing America to Americans,” the Farm Security Administration (FSA) commissioned photographers to travel across the United States and document the hardships of the Great Depression between 1935-43. Images like Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma (1936) by Arthur Rothstein or Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936) by Dorothea Lange have come to represent the Great Depression in American memory. Roy E. Stryker, who headed the information division of the FSA, screened hundreds of thousands of negatives submitted by the photographers. He wielded his editorial power through an irreversible act—by punching holes in 35mm negatives. Once punched, the images could not be used—whether in popular magazines or in Congressional presentations about the plight of Americans. This destructive editing process was called “killing the negative.”

In this compelling collaborative exhibition, Phillips, Lansana, and a group of noted American poets including recent US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green, Ken Hada, Randall Horton, Rose McLarney, Moheb Soliman, and Candace G. Wiley explore this deeper history, along with complex and timely issues of representation and agency.

Phillips transforms the historic images into large-scale, immersive graphite drawings (meticulously reproduced as giclee prints for exhibition purposes), which urge viewers to confront not just the realism of the image, but also the personal and cultural implications of stories embedded within the image. The poets respond to the image with interventions of text, sound, and breath to give voice to the subject. In each collaboration, poet and artist together fill the vacant space left by government censorship and create an entirely new conversation about power, representation, and the shaping of America’s historical narratives.

In 1938, FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein traveled to Eighty Acres, a segregated community at the edge of Glassboro, New Jersey. He met and photographed an older Black man identified only as an “Agricultural laborer,” and in one of Rothstein’s photographs, the man reaches up as if to tip his bowler hat. Back in his Washington office, Stryker inexplicably chose to censor this image, “killing” it with a sharp, black punch straight through the man’s chest. This image inspired the collaborative pairing of “hospitality” by Lansana and Killed Negative #13 / After Arthur Rothstein (2020) by Phillips. The richly toned large drawing fills a wall—the man looks down at and confronts the viewer with both the gentle tip of the hat and the gaping, violent, hole. Lansana’s words–and in the exhibition, his voice–ring out:

what rain must come

for a black man to wet? what sound makes us fall? . . .

you offer no food for my grandsons

mouths. no shelter from raging wind . . .

harvest a dream buried in dust

good day, sir

FSA photographers crossed the country to document need in America and build political and popular support for progressive social programs. While the photographs contributed to social reforms, the FSA initiative itself was not entirely open and equitable, and need in our communities is still present. Through these interventions, the poets and Phillips are exploring complex and timely issues that provide catalysts for important conversations about censorship, racism, agency, and equity.

This touring exhibition is an adaptation of the forthcoming exhibit organized by the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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Tour Schedule

Killing the Negative: Poetic Interventions is touring September 2026 through August 2031. The dates below reflect seven-week exhibition periods. Dates are subject to change; please contact MoreArt@maaa.org or (800) 473-3872 x208/209 for current availability.

Exhibition Details

22 drawings (in reproduction form) paired with 19 poems (text on panels, with audio/headphones and QR codes for video access)

  • Content

    Fee Includes:
    Press Kit
    Registrar’s Packet
    Programming Guide
    Gallery Guide
    Text Panels
    Narrative Labels
    Full Insurance
    Installation Instructions
    Custom-Designed and Built Crates

  • Curated By

    Susan Green, Associate Curator of Special Collections, Archives and Research at the Philbrook Museum of Art

  • Organized By

    ExhibitsUSA, Mid-America Arts Alliance, Kansas City, MO

  • Out-of-Region Rental Fee

    $9750

  • In-Region Rental Fee

    $5850

  • Duration

    7-week display

  • Shipping

    Van Line

  • Running Feet

    150-200 (Estimated; exact linear feet TBD)

  • Square Feet

    -

  • Security

    Standard (new term, akin to ModB)

  • Number of Crates/Total Weight

    TBD

  • Insurance

    The exhibition is fully insured by ExhibitsUSA at no additional expense to you, both while installed and during transit.