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Looking Behind the Photographs,
This review is from: Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography (Hardcover)
Errol Morris has used his camera to satisfy his curiosity and to pique ours. He has made documentaries such as _The Fog of War_ which interviewed the rueful Vietnam War administrator Robert McNamara, and _Standard Operating Procedure_ which investigated the truths revealed (or not) in the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. His _The Thin Blue Line_ was a brilliant investigation of a wrongly convicted death-row inmate in Texas, and it meticulously recreated the supposed crime from different viewpoints. When it came time for the 1988 film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, the Academy declined to do so; Morris had staged recreations of the crime, you see, so it wasn't really a documentary. So Morris ought to have good ideas about how photographs work, and what makes them true and what makes them false. He puts those ideas within four connected essays in _Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography_ (The Penguin Press), a handsome book, fittingly well-illustrated, of detailed examination of specific photographs, some famous and some obscure, to show how they inform or mislead us. Each chapter serves up an image that seems almost self-explanatory, and then Morris meticulously dissects it, calls in experts, and uncovers a tangled world of contingencies and eventual mysteries that we cannot fathom. It is a disconcerting exercise; what the photographs mean seemed so obvious. But Morris has reminded us: "_Nothing_ is so obvious it is obvious." Each chapter beautifully illustrates this aphorism.
The first photographs examined are two that come from the Crimean War. Each is taken from the same spot with camera fixed on a tripod on a day in 1855. They show a road near the site where the Light Brigade charged, and they are nearly identical. However, in one photo (called here "OFF") there are cannonballs in a gully to the side of the road, and in the other (called here "ON") the cannonballs are scattered on the road itself. Susan Sontag commented on the two photographs, saying that the photographer, Roger Fenton, had moved the cannonballs onto the road to make the admittedly horrific shelling seem more photographically dramatic. Morris wanted to know how Sontag knew so much about what Fenton was doing, or if he had actually done it, and even if the photographs were in the sequence OFF then ON. Morris not only flew to the Crimea to look at the site (it is remarkably unchanged although cannonballs are long gone), but he got an earful from experts, one at the Victoria and Albert Museum who says Fenton moved the cannonballs, and another at the J. Paul Getty who says he did not, and one at the Metropolitan who says that soldiers could have moved the cannonballs from the road not only to clear it but to have them ready for pickup and refiring at the enemy who sent them originally. This would put ON before OFF. The beauty in this section, and in the others, is joining Morris in a wide-ranging and obsessive quest. He quotes at length his interviews with his experts. He even uses "software routinely used by gaffers (lighting technicians) in the motion picture business" to evaluate the Sun's position as it moved across the sky on 23 April 1855, causing the shadows of the cannonballs to move. In the end, it is gravity that gives the answer about which photo came first, but why the cannonballs were moved is a moral question we can no longer ask the photographer. Then Morris has another, more vital question; no one doubts that this campaign was vicious, but even if Fenton did move the cannonballs to demonstrate it: "Why does moralizing about `posing' take precedence - moral precedence - over moralizing about the carnage of war?"
There are two chapters devoted to photographs from Abu Ghraib, one that analyzes the work of photographers who were part of a Depression-era New Deal agency, one devoted to the photograph of a Mickey Mouse doll abandoned in a glass-strewn street of apartment buildings in Lebanon, bombed-out by Israeli air strikes, and one to a photograph found on a soldier's body at Gettysburg. Morris writes, "Today, possibly because of Photoshop and other photography-doctoring software, people have become suspicious of photographs. This is a good thing." None of the case studies here, however, involve any of that sort of digital rearrangement. People find certainty in photographs, but Morris shows that the certainty is in their minds beforehand, and people consistently see ambiguous photos as increasing the certainty they had before anyway. It may not be as dire a situation as he states it: "Truth in photography is an elusive notion. There might not be any such thing." I am not willing to accept that there can be no photographic truth, and I think Morris's fascinating efforts here show that it can at least be approached, however elusive.