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Questions without Answers
on October 17, 2011
A common question among serious photographers is "what is the truth of a photograph?" Errol Morris, an Academy Award winning documentary film maker, approaches the question in this book.
He does it by examining specific images in six essays, that deal with two similar photographs taken in the Crimean War; the well known photographs of prisoners and GI's at Abu Ghraib prison; several photographs taken by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression; an image of a child's toy in war-torn Lebanon; and a photograph of children found in the hand of a dead soldier at Gettysburg. His method is similar in all cases; he researches the background of the images and reports apparently verbatim interviews that he had with various people involved with the photographs.
His handling of the Crimean war images is a paradigm of his method. The late public intellectual Susan Sontag attacked a photographer of that conflict who had taken two images of a road, one with canon balls in a gully, and the same view with the canon balls on a road. Morris faults Sontag for accusing the photographer of setting up the latter image, and recounts his own efforts to learn which picture was taken first. After interviewing many experts with no success Morris made a trip to the Crimea and determined that the photographer was facing north. With this information in hand, a forensic scientist was able to determine which photograph was the later.
The author raises many questions, including how and why the difference, and dances around the question of whether the second photograph should be considered a fake. Morris never really answers the question. To thoughtful photographers and philosophers the information that he provides will be enough for them to reach their own conclusions. In a work designed for a popular audience this vagueness is unwarranted. Most readers will require a little bit more than just the facts the author discloses (and certainly might have benefitted from a few more answers, like that of the photographer's motivation and some deeper discussion of the ethical questions). Add to that the lengthy quoting of often irrelevant interviews, especially with people who may have had a special axe to grind, and most readers may wonder what the essay was about.
To be fair, the author does not purport to offer a full blown argument about truth in photography. As he says, these are merely observations.
That doesn't mean that some of the stories are not interesting for side details. I had long admired Dorothea Lange's photograph, "Migrant Mother" showing the drawn face of what I believed was a victim of the dustbowl. I was astonished by the present day photograph of the women and her three daughters, all looking well-fed and prosperous. Similarly, I was filled with distaste for the story of the grey-principled doctor who took advantage of the photograph of children that was found in the hands of the dead Civil War soldier.
On the other hand I was astonished that the conclusion of the exploration of Abu Ghraib photographs was to raise the question of who was responsible for the murder of a victim shown in one of the photographs. The question certainly is important but it was raised unexpectedly out of a discussion which made the issue seem peripheral. Perhaps that was the intention of the author, but it certainly made what had gone before in the essay seem poorly crafted.
For the most part, however, I was disappointed that the author, after promising to explore the truthfulness of photographs and their impact on society, could let his arguments lapse into question marks.