What’s the difference between “artist” and “theorist”? Is it who employs you, the product you put out, or something else?
When I went back to school six years ago, I enjoyed the chance to read criticism by scholars who eloquently caution us to beware the ways artists, politicians, journalists and consumers abuse images. Some have found such a secure home in the visual theory canon that a young guy cutting his teeth in this art world can’t avoid them—even if he doesn’t read them—because everyone else is using their terminology. To name a few off the top: Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida have all become special places where we can learn to better navel gaze about what we see.
Errol Morris wasn’t really part of that visual theory canon. He was a documentary filmmaker, not a theorist to base a dissertation on. But both then and now I find Morris’s essays more special and more relevant than almost anything else I’ve read. He’s a devoted questioner of why and how we engage with pictures, and I admire the way he puts so much effort into both doubting his first assumptions and putting his doubts into pragmatic, useful practice. After all, he’s the director of The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that coupled a series of reenactments and some well-honed theories about the slipperiness of memory to get an innocent man off death row.
I just read Morris’s new book, Believing Is Seeing, a set of collected and reedited essays from his New York Times blog about the swirls of conviction we attach to photography. He writes, “What we see is not independent of our beliefs. Photographs provide evidence, but no shortcut to reality. It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around” (93). Making meaning from a photo means situating it with what we know already. When we see a photo we decide which way is up in it, who is sad, maybe why they’re sad, what’s going on outside the frame, and whether the photo has been faked. To do all that we fit the photo to our own experiences of how the world works. We often confuse photos with the stories we bring to them.
Plenty of theorists of photography and painting have written similar cautions. It’s right to remind ourselves that photos aren’t the thing they depict and that people with competing agendas shoot photos, edit, distribute and interpret them. What makes Morris special is what he does with that caution.
Sontag, in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, writes about two of the first war photographs. Morris quotes her accurately: “Not surprisingly, many of the canonical images of early war photography turn out to have been staged, or to have had their subjects tampered with. After reaching the much-shelled valley approaching Sebastopol in his horse-drawn darkroom Fenton made two exposures from the same tripod position: in the first version of the celebrated photograph he was to call “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” … 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 cannonballs on the road itself” (Sontag 53). It’s hard to doubt much of what she says here. Lots of evidence supports the notions that Roger Fenton, a British photographer, was sent to the Crimean front in 1855 and spent four months there taking photos, and that two of those depict a deserted road from the same point of view, one with cannon balls scattered all over the road and in the ditch, the other with the road clean and balls in the ditch. But how does she know he posed the second one? How does she know which one came second?
Like Sontag, Morris dwells in a space of incredulity about photos. “The concepts of naturalness, authenticity, and posing are all slippery slopes that when carefully examined become hopelessly vague” (58). But unlike Sontag, realizing these concepts are “hopelessly vague” doesn’t take away Morris’s hope that photos can be used as evidence to help us see beyond our own fog of cultural pressure and personal motivations and then as tools for making something new.
The way he sees it, Sontag is making a big mistake: “She resolves a mystery simply by declaring it a trick, a plan to deceive. The claim that a photograph is posed is a claim that the photographer intended to deceive the viewer. It’s not that photographers never set out to fool or trick us, it’s just that trickery is often a too simple and convenient explanation” (45). Sontag’s doubt about a photo’s authenticity leads her too quickly to a conclusion about the photographer’s psychology. Morris uses her conclusion as the beginning of a search instead of an end, and the spends the first chapter of his book describing his considerable forensic efforts to answer which of Fenton’s photos was taken first. I won’t spoil the ending.
My point is that by reading Morris, I learn not only about looking again—questioning my own motivations and standards of evidence as I view a photo or other image—but also about how he keeps himself stopping there. He uses his critical habits as starting points for films that change people’s lives, and this book shows some of his thought process along the way.
The book also contains one of the more open definitions of “art” I’ve seen lately. In an interview transcript Morris says, “the best I could come up with was: create an arbitrary set of rules, and then follow them slavishly. You set up an idea of what you should and should not do, and then you strictly adhere to it. You try to develop a worldview or an aesthetic, however you want to describe it. Maybe it’s even an idea of rectitude” (167). Here I read him as saying his “art” comes through trying to rectify other theorists’ thin explanations. With that in mind, I want to watch his documentaries again.