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Erosion: On Errol Morris | The Nation

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Erosion: On Errol Morris

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This, finally, is the trouble with regarding photographs as pit stops along the road of a clarifying narrative: it’s no way to appreciate them. After reading Believing Is Seeing, it’s tempting to imagine a mockumentary in which Morris is seated before one of the “new documentary” photographs (the ones that reveal more than the human eye can see) and asked to apply his method—to certify what’s depicted in that vast field of vision, and what’s true. How would he begin to investigate the minutiae swarming there? On second thought, he’d probably adore the clarity of these images.

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

 

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About the Author

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

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Part of what’s so bothersome about Morris’s approach is that it accepts, without quite knowing it, a model of documentary photography that has been in the process of changing for the past eighty years. It would be harder for Morris to wave aside the implications of staged photographs if he’d talked about someone like Mikhailov, who makes his scenes from scratch; what’s most authentic about them is his subjects’ willingness to participate in his fictitious (but perhaps emotionally “true”) depictions of their lives. And Morris seems unaware that his discomfort with the way photographs arrest time—slicing a moment from the narrative elaboration that’s needed for real understanding—finds direct expression in the large-scale photographs being taken by people like Salgado and Delahaye, among others. It’s unfair to generalize about any group of artists—or documentarians—but the oversize-photography crowd does seem obsessed with trying to capture, or represent, time itself.

It can be exhilarating to look at these gigantic photos and feel—through the care and often the digital artistry of their makers—the absence of a conventional photographer imposing his or her eye on you, insisting on which encounter of many deserves a close-up, which moment under a wide horizon wants your attention. It can feel as if you’re being let in on the quiddity of What Is, full stop. The art historian Michael Fried puts his finger on this reaction in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, when he suggests that these images require the viewer to help form the meaning of each photograph. Of course, this is one of the finer feints of the aesthetic: as it happens, the images are meticulously choreographed to lead your eye along a given line; and no totality can ever be captured—but that’s how the pictures look if all you’ve seen is smaller-scale work from the nearly 200-year history of photography. “Appetitive vision” is what the art historian Norman Bryson calls it in his introduction to a recent collection of Gursky’s photographs of oceans (which resemble satellite shots more than what we usually think of as photographs).

The style of these giant photos recalls the medium’s earliest promise of objectivity as well as its first specimens, such as Louis Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple (circa 1839), in which a lengthy exposure time failed to register any people or carriages on the Parisian street, save a shoeshine man and his bent-kneed customer, whose shoe needed just enough buffing for both figures to leave a trace on the plate. The image quite literally preserves more than one instant—a continuum of time is baked into it—though certain ephemera, like people in motion, melt away. A similar dynamic is at work in Delahaye’s large panel Jenin Refugee Camp (2002), which reveals a seemingly infinite depth of field: rubble in the foreground, a dramatically sunlit middle distance where small human figures are dispersed, and a background of urban agglomeration stretching to the horizon. With its vast canvas of latent circulation—of people, polities and debris—it’s about as near to the motion of cinema as a still image can get.

Delahaye has said that he likes to feel “cold,” “detached,” “invisible” and “insignificant” when taking his photographs, “and that is how I arrive at a full presence to things.” Perilously close as this comes to echoing what Sontag called the “humbug to be found, and ignored, in declarations made by some of the most admirable photographers of conscience,” Delahaye’s stated method is pretty much the reverse of what classic documentary work, which believes in the unique perspective of the “witness,” has fostered over the past century. That the aims of documentary and art photography keep getting entangled isn’t news, yet that Delahaye and other makers of documentary images are questioning the very existence of “decisive moments” surely is significant. Their attempt to capture our predicament with vast panoramas symbolizing the world’s political, financial or industrial “systems”—to borrow a word from Bryson—rather than with images of individual human subjects is the corollary of a culture in which each of us “shares” her private mementos with hundreds of “friends,” and “friends of friends,” and even that capacious Facebook gang, “everyone.” Imagining how our lives appear from the vantage point of some vaguely benevolent, impersonal system—and photographing them accordingly—is getting to be second nature for many of us. Is it the task of art or of documentary to make photographs reflecting on this situation?

Meanwhile, the desire to be a member in good standing of either the art or documentary school—and to keep them neatly segregated—seems to be what fuels Morris’s inquiries, just as it did the declarations of the documentary photographers in Dumbo last summer. Much as he and they think of themselves as iconoclasts, they’ve actually accepted the old bifurcation in the history of the medium: if you’re claiming to show something of “reality,” you don’t get to call yourself an artist. The photographers in Dumbo thought they had solved this problem by renouncing reality; Morris’s solution has been to fight for every inch of it. There’s no hint in Believing Is Seeing that the boundaries of these two old fiefdoms might be eroding.

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