Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Errol Morris: Believing Is Seeing (part 1)

This is not a book review. It's more of a way to collect some notes.
I have long been a fan of Errol Morris and his films, so when I saw that he had a book about photography coming out, I immediately ordered it. If you've seen any of Morris' documentaries then you already know that he can tell a story. He sets up his book as a series of mysteries—a great way to draw in the reader. His first mystery: a chicken/egg story about two photos by one of the first ever war photographers, Roger Fenton. One of the photos shows a road in the "Valley of the Shadow of Death" with a ditch strewn with cannonballs:
The other photo—the one that became famous—has cannonballs littering the road itself:
(photos via Wikipedia)

The latter photo has more drama, but the authenticity of the scene has been put into question by various curators/scholars. The "authentic" photo would be the one that has not been staged (assuming, as many have, that one was staged). I admit that when I saw the winners of the 2011 International Awards, I wondered if any of the photos had been staged. When a colleague of mine saw my "angel of repose" photo (in my last post) the first thing he said is that it looked posed, which I take as a sort of compliment, in the same way we say that a plant or a piece of fruit is so perfect it looks fake.  In Fenton's case, the "it looks posed" claim was not a compliment, but an accusation. An attack on the man's character meant to raise skepticism or elicit debate about documentary photography and its claim to truth. Everyone loves a good scandal. Imagine Susan Sontag pouncing on the idea that Fenton had asked an assistant to scatter cannonballs about for the sake of drama. It makes a good anecdote and a great jumping off point for a polemical work about photography.

Morris read Sontag's assertion that Fenton had staged the photo, but unlike most readers, he stopped to question her sources. Literally. Yes, literally. He actually followed the trail from an acknowledgment (no footnotes chez Sontag. must be nice not to be burdened by documentation) and interviewed the guy. Then he interviewed another. And another. And another. Morris is a model of intellectual curiosity. He shows us his process, he lets us follows his leads, he transcribes his interviews, and he sleuths his way to the Valley of the Shadow of Death to look for answers first hand. The pleasure of a good mystery is in the process, which explains why whodunnit detectives like to narrate each step of the way. In the case of "detective" Morris, this means we get to hear about the high heels of his tour guide, about JFK watching Roman Holiday during the Cuban missile crisis, and that we get to hear him drift off into reflections such as:
War is such a peculiar thing—inaugurated by the whims of a few, affecting the fate of many. It is a difficult,  if not impossible, thing to understand, yet we feel compelled to describe it as though it has meaning—even virtue. It starts for reasons often hopelessly obscure, meanders on, then stops. (30)
Another great quote:
We want to know where we end and the world begins. We want to know where that line is. It's the deepest problem of epistemology. (37)
 Another thing I learn from following Morris' process is his method of interviewing people. When he talks with a forensic photography specialist who mentions the "CSI effect" and says "I'm sure you know what that is," Morris doesn't say "Oh, yeah of course I do. Haven't you seen my films?" He just responds, "Tell me." By suppressing his ego Morris gets more information.

more to come.