Erosion: On Errol Morris

Erosion: On Errol Morris

Why does Errol Morris cling to a model of documentary photography eighty years out of date?


St. Ann’s Warehouse, a theater in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, was dark and crowded on a pleasant Saturday afternoon last summer, when about a dozen documentary photographers who were taking part in the New York Photo Festival wedged themselves behind a table on the stage. The cramped seating didn’t much ease the tension in the air. While discussing their work—one of them called it “hypersubjective,” another “nontraditionally” documentary—the photographers kept circling back to a review of the festival published a day or two earlier in the New York Times. Ken Johnson had written that their images evoked “the feeling of a fast, superficial skimming of the world appealing to random, short-attention-span curiosity.” While he argued that the photographs weren’t “striking enough” to waken deeper interest in their subjects—a serious fault for images billed as documentary—he also dismissed them as too beautiful, “nearly hallucinogenic” in their aestheticization. In different ways each photographer groped for a response, with the bewilderment of one who’s been misunderstood by a friend.

That documentary photography can’t be both gorgeous and ethical is by now an old and dog-eared criticism, though Johnson was probably also disappointed by the quality of the stuff he’d seen. Jessica Hines plays with irreconcilable scale and unbridgeable time in some of her photos, which reflect on her older brother’s suicide ten years after he served in Vietnam: she went to where he’d been during the war and held up his old snapshots of those places against present-day backgrounds—and photographed the combination. The visual effect is not quite as charged as the experience must have been. Alejandro Chaskielberg staged photographs of South Americans on the Paraná River delta at night, using a long shutter speed that made his large prints gush with Technicolor. His figures looked static, caught in sweetened and phantasmagorical setups. Later in the summer, at an exhibition called “Otherworldly” at the Museum of Arts and Design, I thought back on Chaskielberg’s bright-plastic scenes: they seemed related to the “false documentary” photographs of meticulously built dioramas and dollhouses that were on display uptown—conscience journalism from an imaginary place.

Probably the most provocative technique in Dumbo was also the least “creative”—that of Basetrack, a collective that had launched a web-based project to document the American war in Afghanistan. The pictures of one Basetracker were big, square blowups of snapshots taken with smartphones using the Hipstamatic app, a filter that simulates the grainy, faded look of prints and Polaroids that was common during the early childhoods of most of today’s iPhone owners. Basetrack’s idea was to make war images, which often look alien and alienating, seem as familiar as casual snapshots, and as difficult to ignore. The tiny furor ignited by the group’s decision to use a commercial app was similar to the debate that arose earlier this year when New York Times photographer Damon Winter earned a prize from Pictures of the Year International for a Hipstamatic photo of two American soldiers in Afghanistan. If there’s an initial jolt to seeing war captured with the same antiquing app used to immortalize a Sunday brunch, it wears off quickly in these photographs. They’re carefully framed, capturing “decisive moments,” yet look like they could have been taken during the mujahedeens’ decade-long war with the Soviets and snipped from faded issues of National Geographic.

At St. Ann’s Warehouse, a number of the photographers shrugged off the strictures of documentary work altogether. “We don’t go to galleries and ask for a text to a painting or sculpture, but photography has this claim to reality.” The word “claim” seemed cradled in scare quotes. Hines said that photography “just reflects what’s in our own minds, obviously.” A moderator of the panel and curator of the show, Enrico Bossan, couldn’t resist a cheeky question: “Documentary or citizen journalism? If we want to kill it, do we kill documentary or citizen journalism?” The photographer Benjamin Lowy said, “It’s not a competition. ‘Amateur journalism’ is a demeaning term. Did any of us go to journalism school? We’ve just been doing it longer. Our time of spot news recording is at an end.”

Lowy added that nowadays everybody carries a digital camera in their pocket, and often when he’s covering a conflict it’s being documented simultaneously by the combatants themselves. He didn’t think of them as his rivals, but in some sense they are. Social networking has immersed us all in photography to a degree that can easily go unnoticed, even by those of us who regularly log on to our Facebook accounts and see dozens of our friends’ snapshots per visit, new ones burping open every few seconds like soap bubbles. The last time “vernacular” images caught on so fast was the 1880s, when smaller and simpler cameras transformed photography from the pursuit of eccentric elites to a popular hobby of the middle classes. The rise of the “snapshot”—this was the era when candidly documenting one’s personal friends, holidays and special occasions first became a craze—in turn triggered the Pictorialist movement, dedicated to rescuing the medium from shutterbugs and elevating it to the status of art. Painterly conventions were meant to do the hoisting (it helped that no snapshooter was thought able to master the new aesthetic), and as a result many serious photographs from the 1890s and 1910s can look quite alien to us today: blurry, full of carefully concocted poses and often oversized and printed on watercolor paper so as to mimic the texture of paintings.

If the flood of snapshots is even deeper now than it was in the 1880s, what’s noteworthy is less the style of the images than the informality of their circulation. On Facebook, intimate, life-altering information is often delivered in the form of a pictogram rather than a written “status update”—the ur-example being the dim, grainy sonogram news flash, which gestates as the mother’s profile picture and then bursts forth into religious iconography with the posting of the Madonna-and-child snapshot. Births, bar mitzvahs, vacations, graduations, weddings and car accidents tend to be announced by way of their visual documentation. Compared with whatever we choose to write about ourselves, these snapshots seem to offer incontrovertible proof that how we wish to be seen is, in fact, precisely how we look. (Facebook’s choice of the word “status” for this theater of self-presentation seems borderline parodic.) Whether all those images are improving our visual literacy or just making us slowly go blind, I don’t know. Either way, we seem increasingly comfortable with the idea that our private mementos are part of a global archive of raw, impersonal data belonging to no one and subject to anybody’s assessing gaze.

Meanwhile, the professional documentary photographers working under these image-blizzard conditions tend to be declaring their imaginative freedom; an educated eye is perhaps the main asset they have over “citizen journalists.” Of course, if a photograph in a newspaper were found to have been posed or manipulated it would be the end of someone’s career, but elsewhere—in books, galleries and online—the truth claims of documentary work are blending with aesthetic ambitions that used to be sealed off, as a distinct genre, in art photography. While the men and women in Dumbo were not really reinventing the standard compositional mode of photojournalism—they stuck to rapidly legible images that focus on a moment of tension or action—they infused it with elements of a more painterly, confected style, and their prints were in general too large for magazine or book formats.

In all this they were gesturing toward the large-scale, sometimes staged photographs meant for gallery walls, made by the likes of Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky since the 1970s. (The work of William Eggleston and Bernd and Hilla Becher—lush color and fearless confrontation of blank contemporary spaces captured in a flat, deadpan tone—has proved enormously influential.) In the past twenty years or so this style has grown in prominence and made a new way of seeing available: an utterly detached and even lifeless gaze, opening windows onto Brueghel-like scenes whose sharp, omnipresent focus suggests the viewpoint of satellites or predator birds or gods.

Sebastião Salgado’s monumental tableaus, often of exploited workers from around the planet, form another bridge between the documentary and art schools (and have been criticized accordingly). New Yorkers could see a separate strand of the aesthetic last summer at MoMA’s exhibition of Boris Mikhailov’s series of enormous posed (and paid for) portraits of Ukrainians in distress. London’s Tate Modern has highlighted the aesthetic with a show called “New Documentary Forms,” featuring the work of five new documentarians, including Mikhailov and the French photographer Luc Delahaye. At the festival in Dumbo, the photographers’ attempts to anoint themselves with the pixie dust of this zeitgeist mostly fell flat: the trappings of bazooka color and hyper-realism (sometimes staged) were present in the images, but the way they zeroed in on subjects—with a belief in the photograph’s ability to mine psychological insights from one key incident and deliver them intact to the viewer—was deeply traditional.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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.”

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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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