Erosion: On Errol Morris
Given the sprouting variety of documentary photographs being taken today, the appearance of Errol Morris’s new book, Believing Is Seeing, which addresses the question of truth in photography, is timely indeed. He takes the reader on a walking tour of photojournalistic hot spots, from 1855 to 2006 to 2003 to 1936 to 2006 to 1863, in that order. The pieces are long on Q&A’s with various experts, and when they were first posted on the New York Times’s Opinionator blog over the past few years, they appeared in almost the same leapfrogging sequence. But repackaged into a book, the pieces hardly develop from one chapter to the next. Mostly, Morris tries to clear up unsolved mysteries in the crevices of the history of photography—things like whether Walker Evans moved some knickknacks in a sharecropper’s house he photographed; which of two photographs by Roger Fenton, from the Crimean War, was taken first; and how much guilt can be inferred from a digital photo of an American soldier grinning over a dead Iraqi at Abu Ghraib.
Morris opens the book with his research into Fenton’s images—two photos of a shallow, nondescript valley with a road winding through it. His curiosity was triggered, he says, by Susan Sontag’s book about images of suffering, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). He quotes her observation that staging or tampering with a given scene was common in early war photography, and that in Fenton’s case two exposures were made “from the same tripod position: in the first version of the celebrated photo…the cannonballs are thick on the ground to the left of the road, but before taking the second picture—the one that is always reproduced—he oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs on the road itself.” The photograph that shows the cannonballs peppering the road is certainly the more arresting image: the perfect black spheres look fearfully distinct on the road’s dusty surface, whereas in the other photograph they recede in the darkness of the ditch.
Morris labors to show that Sontag sequenced the photographs based on an assumption: there’s no proof in the historical record that Fenton moved the cannonballs for aesthetic reasons, or that he didn’t move them off the road rather than onto it. Sleuthing for evidence of what actually happened, Morris distorts Sontag’s opinion on these matters: “She resolves a mystery simply by declaring it a trick, a plan to deceive,” he writes. Twenty-four pages later: “And even if Sontag is right, namely, that Fenton moved the cannonballs to telegraph the horrors of war, what’s so bad about that? Why does moralizing about ‘posing’ take precedence—moral precedence—over moralizing about the carnage of war? Is purism of the photography police blinding them to the human tragedy the cannonballs represent?”
There’s no moralizing about posed photographs, though, in Regarding the Pain of Others, nor blindness to human tragedy. Maybe Morris is thinking of her On Photography (1977), which bristles with ideas about the metaphoric impositions and presumptions of the medium. But the more recent book, which Morris has made the foil of his own, is, among other things, a searching argument about the truth value of posed photographs and a kind of fugue for the suffering that humans inflict on one another. When Sontag writes that it’s “odd” how we’re “always disappointed” to learn that certain photographs were staged, she is gently outlining the limits of our conditioned expectations, which she stops just short of saying may change over time, as new photographs produce new categories. “We want the photographer to be a spy in the house of love and of death,” she writes, in an observation too tart to offer any endorsement, “and those being photographed to be unaware of the camera, ‘off guard.’”
Sontag goes on to describe a photograph taken in London during the Blitz, showing three men browsing through a library with perfect sang-froid, though we can see that the building they’re standing in has been sheared in half: it’s an understatement to say they were unlikely to be caught unawares in their poses of contemplation. But, Sontag argues, the image turns out to be no less eloquent on the realities of the Blitz, both its terrors and the stoic response of the British. “With time,” she concludes, “many staged photographs turn back into historical evidence, albeit of an impure kind—like most historical evidence.” This is not a statement that Morris reproduces.
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Believing Is Seeing reads like the journal of a slightly obsessive detective who never glances up from his fingerprint analysis of Gavrilo Princip to see that a war has broken out in Europe. We hear a lot about whorls and loops. There is, though, no reason to expect that Morris’s virtues as a gumshoe (with a poetic eye for filming interviews) would suit him equally to directing movies and writing books. In his documentaries he coaxes people who don’t often face the camera to “act natural”—to act, convincingly, like themselves. This is a feat, and he combines it with investigative skills and a filmmaking style both punchy and elegant. The result is history pried open and put back together, with interpretations of the past—including a death-row verdict in a Texas murder case in The Thin Blue Line (1988)—revised. For three decades Morris has justly been regarded as a virtuoso of the timeline, managing to make something morally urgent from a basic chronology.
His first films, Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1981), about pet-cemetery owners and small-town eccentrics, respectively, solved no mystery except the widely pertinent one of how people of limited resources find meaning in life. The revelations in these films are Herzogian in their depth and oddness. (Werner Herzog, an early mentor, made good on his wager that he’d eat his shoe if Morris completed Gates of Heaven, and Les Blank shot a documentary of the feast.) The films suggest that contrary to expectation, it can be fascinating to watch a person talk about himself on camera, and that no matter how meager a life may look from outside, the person living it will never fail to find meaning from within. Morris’s latest movie, Tabloid, is an irresistible specimen of this subgenre. Its bizarre coda—about the cloning of Joyce McKinney’s beloved dog, decades after the escapade that the documentary actually focuses on, in which McKinney kidnapped her Mormon fiancé and became a tabloid sensation—isn’t a non sequitur, you realize, but a fulfillment of the promise of this kind of character study. Not only do the years isolate her and intensify her oddity; they lead her to the very limits of present-day science (and back into the papers). And why not? What else could a personality like hers be expected to do in middle age? Without the melancholy and implacable fact of time, Morris’s characters would not be as indelible as they are.
But photographs, first and last, freeze time. “Photographs reveal and they conceal,” Morris writes in Believing Is Seeing, in a line that might serve as a catch-all thesis if he didn’t seem so bored with the first half of it. The power of documentary photography is something he regards with the ambivalence, or more often the indifference, of a man whose primary business model depends on the flux and flow of narrative. “Truth in photography is an elusive notion,” he says at one point. “There may not be any such thing.”
As a filmmaker, Morris regards photographs quite reasonably as a means to an end, and as such they can serve one of two functions. A straight, unposed photograph can be a piece of evidence all too likely to be misinterpreted, thereby distorting the story line he’s attempting to untangle in his movie. Spc. Megan Ambuhl Graner, speaking in Morris’s documentary on Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure (2008), more or less anticipates the argument of his book when she describes certain photographs at the prison—in this case ones that show the bloody aftermath of prisoner abuse but don’t reveal that it apparently came in response to an attack initiated by the prisoners, who’d smuggled a gun into their cell: “Your imagination can run wild when you just see blood. The pictures only show you a fraction of a second; you don’t see forward and you don’t see backward and you don’t see outside the frame.”
The flip side of this acute skepticism leads Morris to see staged photographs as nothing more than reminders that all photos are to some degree counterfeit: “The minute you take one picture as opposed to another,” he writes, “or the minute you select one photograph from a group of photographs, you are doing something very, very similar to manipulating reality.” Morris is preoccupied with this notion in four of his six chapters: on Fenton; on whether Sabrina Harman’s smile in certain Abu Ghraib photographs is “genuine” or, in effect, staged; on whether Evans moved minor objects around in a sharecropper’s house, or Arthur Rothstein staged his famous photographs from the Dust Bowl; and on whether the photojournalist Ben Curtis inserted a poignant touch—a plush Mickey Mouse—into a snapshot of rubble taken in Tyre during Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon. In all of these cases Morris’s concern is exposing what really happened between photographer and subject; the resulting image seems to interest him very little, and he has nothing to say about its style or place in the history of the medium.
In a recent interview for the website The Browser, Morris related the issue of staging in photographs to his movies, which were criticized years ago for the re-enactments of crucial scenes:
There’s a passage in Believing is Seeing where I talk about posing—how all images are posed. There is no veridical image. There is no ur-image. There is no image that is more truthful than another…. One of the deep misconceptions about documentary is that it’s more truthful if you hand-hold your camera or use available light. Truth isn’t about style. That’s what makes it so absurd that the Academy didn’t even consider The Thin Blue Line for an award. The Thin Blue Line did what a documentary movie should do—it pursued the truth.
I can’t help wondering if Morris is interested in the authenticity of photographs because he’s still litigating the Academy’s case against The Thin Blue Line. After discussing at length Rothstein’s possibly posed photograph of a father and his sons running through a dust storm, he writes: “It is the idea that the photograph captures that endures,” and not whether it was, as they say, re-enacted. If Morris’s responses to Sontag profoundly skew her argument (“Why does moralizing about ‘posing’ take precedence—moral precedence—over moralizing about the carnage of war?”), that may be because he’s actually responding to the critics of his documentaries.
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