24 April 2008

Errol Morris Interview

Mitchell: "Is there a difference between your use of what I would call “forensic” reenactments in The Thin Blue Line and the kinds of reenactment you created for SOP?"

Morris: "Yes and no. I have used reenactments in all of my films. I hear a line in an interview and it suggests an image. In The Fog of War, McNamara discusses his work at Ford on automobile safety. Padded dashboards, collapsible steering wheels, seat belts, etc. He suddenly, unexpectedly tells a story about dropping skulls–padded and unpadded–down a stairwell at Cornell. I thought to myself, what an image! McNamara even when he’s trying to save lives is dropping stuff from the sky. O.K. I “illustrated” the line. It is a way of directing or re-directing attention to a specific thought or idea. In Standard Operating Procedure, I do something similar, but the “illustrations” direct attention to moral quandaries, disturbing details–and many of them involve the photographs."

[. . .]

Mitchell: "You have written at length about the strange effects that photographs have on viewers, persuading them of the self-evident meaning of what they see–while, at the same time, they are liable to attract all kind of misconceptions and ungrounded beliefs. What lessons do you draw about the changed conditions of photography in the digital age from your experience with the Abu Ghraib images?"

Morris: "The problem is with photography–both still and moving images. Photographs are ripped out of the world and stripped of context regardless of whether they are “chemical” or “digital” images. Of course, digital photography has changed how photographs are viewed and how they are distributed. Now, photographs are not printed on paper, they are displayed on screens. And they are not sent in the mail or over telephone and telegraph-wires, they are sent as digital attachments in emails or posted on FTP sites. A photograph can be sent to 100,000 different places with one click. Photoshop, however, did not inaugurate an era of photographic fabrication, manipulation, and falsification–that started with photography itself. Photoshop points out something we should have known all along–that we are easily fooled by photographs, even photographs that haven’t been manipulated at all."
These brief excerpts are from a short interview in Harper's (blog ~ 24 April '08) between W.J.T. Mitchell and Errol Morris. I've posted on Standard Operating Procedure and its reception here and here already. The film is due to be released tomorrow. I love the notion of "illustrating" ideas and the question of our credulousness when confronted with photographs is theoretically crucially important. David Levi Strauss is writing a book on the topic that you should keep your eyes peeled for. (If you search my past posts for his name you can find some teasers.)

Thanks to John Measor for bringing the interview to my attention!

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