Thursday, March 8, 2012

Reading: Believing is Seeing by Errol Morris

Ironically I once had a paper published in the Physics World, entitled: "Seeing is Believing".  At the time I was working on theoretical studies of semiconductor crystal growth and with my former PhD supervisor, Dimitri Vvedensky, was collaborating with an IBM graphics lab to do some early animated graphical representations of how the growth proceeded.  This was back in the late 80's and what now would seem very primitive was then a real insight into the dynamics of growth, rather than looking at some spectroscopic curve, these animations showed atoms moving around on the surface of a crystal.

Well, that was the premise, what we were showing of course was a mathematical model driven simulation of growth, the tile of the paper alluding to the fact that because we had a graphical representation it was very much easier to understand what we were modeling and thus to believe that we had it right.  As with science, we are far more likely to believe a news story if it is illustrated by compelling imagery, however, the power of such images brings with it the temptation to embroider, manipulate and even to deceive.

Errol Morris, in his book Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photographs), looks into a number of cases in which photographs were manipulated in some way.  The most obvious manipulation in this digital age is to simply edit the photograph by adding or removing content. However, whilst this is commented on, the book looks at more subtle misuses of photography.  These can best be summed up as:

  1. The photographer changing the scene, moving things from place to place.  Here Morris looks at the work of the Farm Security administration and in particular a photograph of a cows skull set against parched earth, taken by Arthur Rothstein in the 1930's.  This photograph was used as a propaganda tool to highlight the plight of the Midwestern farmers during the dust-bowl.  However, it was discovered that the skull had been moved 10ft by Rothstein to create better dramatic effect.  Rothstein was heavily criticized, and yet was a victim not a perpetrator, he did not decide how the photograph was subsequently used.  Other examples in the book include Fentons moving of cannon balls in the Crimea and the suggestion that the Mickey Mouse photo in my last entry was managed.
  2. Context obscured or altered by use.  The case study used looks at the now infamous Abu Graib photos which have entered the public consciousness as proof that the soldiers portrayed were torturing Iraqi prisoners, soldiers now in military prison.  The back story, however, is very different, sure the soldiers were stupid in taking and then sharing the images, but the torture and murder portrayed were the doing of other agencies, these guys simply took some record shots to prove what happened.  The photos then exploded across newspaper front pages and scapegoats were needed by an embarrassed military.
He finishes the book with a rather sad tale of a civil war soldier found dead at Gettysburg clutching a photograph of 3 children.  He was subsequently identified as Amos Humiston through generous man printing copies of the image and then distributing them until Humiston's wife saw the photograph.  Here things turned unpleasant and the former benefactor begins to profit from the image and effectively embezzles money raised through use of the photograph for orphaned children of the war dead.  Here the photograph is used as a tool of greed, although at no point is the veracity or authenticity of the image doubted.

This book presents a number of case studies, each examining elements of truth in photography, in most cases a good deal of investigative work was completed by Morris and interviews with experts are used to drive the narrative.  The book turns each photograph into an almost living being, the image flowing from place to place driving reaction.  At times the detail is too great, but on the whole I found this to be a valuable and thought provoking examination of the ways in which photographic images can be used to manipulate and deceive, whether honestly or not.  

It is fascinating, but to a certain degree I am beginning to wonder why so much print is expended on this question of truth in photography.  Once upon a time at the birth of the medium people truly believed that a photograph delivered a truth, this was soon disabused.  Although the forms of trickery discussed in the book are all deceptions of a form, the greatest deception of photography is not what is in the photograph but what is omitted.  A photographer editorializes every time they hit the shutter button.  The ultimate viewer never knows what was not photographed.

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