Erosion: On Errol Morris | The Nation


Erosion: On Errol Morris

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Morris’s quest to set the record straight on Fenton’s photographs showcases his resourcefulness as well as the limits of looking at such images for evidence alone. He talks to a number of art historians: some agree and some disagree with Sontag’s hypothesis that the cannonballs were moved from the ditch to the road (their conversations are exhaustively transcribed). Frustrated with them because none can offer any proof to back their sympathies, Morris flies to Simferopol in hopes of re-creating the images and establishing their sequence based on sunlight and shadow at different times of day. Meanwhile, he ponders deeper questions without going so far as to answer them: “In my obsessive discussion of these two pictures, had I forgotten that Roger Fenton was one of the first photographers to chronicle war—and a truly terrible war at that? Had I forgotten about the war while drifting into the war photograph? I hope not.” One of his art-history experts supplies a potted history of the conflict, in Q&A form. Morris’s effort to turn his present-day photographs into sundials, in order to reveal, by analogy, which of Fenton’s photos was taken first, fails. Finally he talks to a friend named Dennis Purcell, who in a clever bit of analysis—spoiler alert: solution coming in next paragraph—compares the images and deduces that Sontag was right after all.

Believing Is Seeing
Observations on the Mysteries of Photography.
By Errol Morris.
Buy this book.



About the Author

Jana Prikryl
Jana Prikryl is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.

Also by the Author

How a photographer’s images of Jews were liberated from the lachrymose history he imposed upon them.

Dwight MacDonald, Jana Prikryl

What’s interesting is not so much the lengths to which Morris is willing to go to solve a mystery whose interpretive fallout apparently leaves him cold—“a combination of the prurient and the pedantic” is how he describes his approach in the book—but that for all his mistrust of still images, in the end he too accepts an analysis that relies on an empirical assumption. Comparing two small patches of hillside next to the road in each photograph, Purcell found that five pebbles had moved slightly from one image to the other: in the photograph that shows cannonballs on the road, the pebbles are a touch downhill from their position in the photograph that shows cannonballs in the gulch beside the road. The pebbles must have been dislodged when one or more people stepped among them, moving the cannonballs, and naturally the pebbles would have tumbled downhill an inch or two—hence, the photograph with cannonballs in the middle of the road, and pebbles further downhill, is declared the second of the two.

But this ingenious and plausible “solution” nonetheless requires Morris to make a deductive leap, however small, between theory and photos. (Couldn’t the movers’ boots have nudged the pebbles uphill—it’s far from a steep incline—if they’d carried the cannonballs off the road for the second photograph?) He lacks hard evidence, such as a letter in Fenton’s hand explaining what he did that day, for the preferred sequence; what Morris has is a theory that he regards as scientific rather than art-historical, like Sontag’s. The essential mystery at the heart of these images, their ineluctable distance from us, has not been resolved. Fenton’s thinking about his work that day remains as elusive as before. Morris is right to say that “we can make false inferences from a photograph.” But he’s still making inferences, and saying nothing about the interplay between aesthetic questions and documentary ethics—which is the nub of the matter. He seems unable to stop repeating this one point: “Photography presents things and at the same time hides things from our view, and the coupling of photography and language provides an express train to error.”

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His express train reaches top speed, I think, in the chapter on Sabrina Harman and her role in the photographs taken by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Morris interviewed her for Standard Operating Procedure and concluded that she took some of the photographs in a secret effort to expose the abuse—only to be court-martialed, unlike the top commanders who laid down the policies that led to it. Now, in Believing Is Seeing, he becomes “uneasy” about the fact that however good her intentions were in Iraq, Harman is smiling widely in most of the dreadful images taken there. Thus, despite his “uneasiness with ‘smile science,’” he gets in touch with Paul Ekman, “an expert on facial expression” whose methods helped create Tim Roth’s recent TV show Lie to Me, in which crimes were solved by elite detectives who knew how to decrypt the pursed lips and twitches on suspects’ faces.

Ekman examines some twenty photographs of Harman at Abu Ghraib and concludes that in the notorious one that shows her giving a thumbs up over the body of Manadel al-Jamadi, “there’s no sign that she’s really feeling genuine enjoyment…. Nor is there any sign that she feels any other emotion, no sign of sadness, no fear, no disgust, and no contempt. It’s just a say-cheese smile.” Ekman’s analysis is a blend of inference and sage description of muscle mechanics:

The signs of an actual enjoyment smile are just not there. She’s doing what people always do when they pose for a camera. They put on a big, broad smile, but they’re not actually genuinely enjoying themselves. We would see movement in the eye cover fold. That’s the area of the skin below the eyebrow before the eyelid. And it moves slightly down only with genuine enjoyment.

Morris gets Ekman to say the same things three times, in deepening registers of jargon, as if a spell were being cast:

It’s the absence of the orbicularis oculi pars lateralis. That muscle orbits the eye completely. It pulls up the cheek and it produces crow’s-feet wrinkles. However, when you get a big broad smile, like she’s doing, that pushes the cheeks up anyhow. And it will produce crow’s-feet wrinkles just on its own. So the only reliable clue as to whether orbicularis oculi pars lateralis has acted is to look above the eye. No muscle can lower that skin other than the orbicularis oculi. The smiling muscle, zygomaticus, can’t affect it. So you can put on as big a smile as you want, and the cover fold skin will not come down.

Morris does not call into question Ekman’s analysis, and he seems positively grateful for it. There seems to be no room, in this detective’s brief, for culpability that might have started with top commanders and trickled down to the rank-and-file who enacted (and documented) the criminal policies. (Curiously, Standard Operating Procedure offers a more nuanced portrait of how blame spread through the ranks, followed closely by regret, perhaps because the soldiers do all the talking.) Nor is there room for Morris’s notion—asserted elsewhere but kept firmly out of this discussion—that “there may not be any such thing” as truth in photography. Far more radically than in his chapter on Fenton, Morris accepts a single reading of a photograph as proof of what was going on in front of the lens when it was taken. He’s willing to believe not just the logistics that went into taking a photo based on what’s visible in it but the feelings and intentions of someone in the picture based on the look on her face. Believing really is seeing.

The complexity of the “thumbs up” photograph is not diminished if you accept Harman’s claim that she took photos and appeared in them at Abu Ghraib in order to help produce a trove of evidence. I happen to doubt it, but I’m willing to go down as an agnostic on this issue. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Harman was faking her smile in this and every other photograph of abuse at Abu Ghraib (in a book replete with illustrations, Morris reproduces only this one photo of Harman, with a man who is already dead, omitting the photo of her grinning behind a pyramid of naked prisoners as well as another of her next to a prisoner’s open leg wound). Much of the abuse at Abu Ghraib—that pyramid is the finest example—was staged specifically for cameras (a point that Sontag made in The New York Times Magazine not long after the images became public). Photography, in this sense, fueled the abuse and was central to the degradation. You could argue that someone who stood beaming in a photograph of torture victims is not entirely free of guilt. Harman played a role in the macabre antics that went into each Kodak moment; whether she was “genuinely enjoying” herself is fantastically irrelevant. Part of the awfulness of those photographs is that nobody pictured in them looks like they’re doing anything genuinely. They’re acting out a ghoulish farce, guilty at best of a morally idiotic fit of sleepwalking. To see this doesn’t mean letting the commanders or the Bush administration off the hook; it just means confronting what their policies set in motion.

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