Differently Intimate

Every killed negative stands out in the FSA archive. If nothing else, that was Styker’s point – to mark certain negatives, making them distinguishable from the rest so they would not, could not, be printed. But, this image would stand out even without the mark.


Like so many of the killed negatives, we know nothing about this photo bibliographically – it is title less, dateless, location-less and author-less. All we know is what we see represented visually: a man – young, white and well dressed – reclines in a twin bed, his gaze aimed directly at the camera. It is a surprisingly intimate photo, but not in the way of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” or Walker Evans’ portraits of the Borroughs family. In these, and others that have been lodged in our minds for the window they give into human poverty, the intimacy comes from the detail, the hard-worn expressions, all of the wrinkles in clothing and skin you imagine the dust can hide. It is an intimacy between subject and audience that says something about American poverty and the human condition.

It fact, it is this direct connection that made portraiture a staple of the FSA collection. In “Poor Like Us: Poverty and Recognition in American Photography”, Winfried Fluck writes “It makes quite a difference whether poverty is presented metonymically by an empty or dirty room or by a set of scattered objects, often without order or, in contrast, by the picture of a brave person who faces the camera squarely on an equal level with the viewer” (Fluck 73). He compares portraits in visual representation to characters in fiction, saying both “are especially effective in triggering reader or spectator involvement” but also that “within that general rule, some portraits are obviously more effective than others” (Fluck 74). The above image is characteristically effective drawing in the spectator’s attention, it is arguably less effective in promoting “spectator involvement” or empathy.

Unlike Lange and Evans’ classic portraits, the intimacy ported in the photo above does not appear to say anything about American poverty. This title-less image is intimate in a way that makes me feel like I am intruding on a private space and time. The sole light source is bedside lamp; it lights the man’s face. The lighting makes the room smaller, and implies the image was taken in the evening. The man, who is presumably in either his, or the photographer’s, bed, stares directly into the camera lens, despite being positioned in three-quarter view. FSA photographers were not afraid to venture into their subjects’ homes, but even then the images convey attention to the details of the home or the family’s daily life. But, in this portrait, the sole focus is the man, who has close-cut hear and wears a pressed dress shirt and slacks. Who is he? He is clearly not a tenant farmer. Who took the image, and why?

That Stryker killed the negative is a further affirmation that this photograph does not belong thematically within the collection. The dot, which is perfectly centred and almost at eye level, serves as a welcome distraction from the man’s complicated gaze, drawing the viewer’s eye up and to the left. Given the intimacy of this photograph, I question whether the unnamed photographer intended this image for the FSA collection, or if it simply ended up on/ with the rolls of film they submitted to Stryker.




Flunk, Winfried. “Poor Like Us: Poverty and Recognition in American Photography.” Amerikasudien/ American Studies 55 (2010): 63-93.


[Untitled]. [Between 1935 and 1942] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/fsa1997003081/PP>.