21 October 2009

Errol Morris, the FSA, Evidence & Truth

"If no theoretical distinction has been made between the photograph as scientific evidence and the photograph as a means of communication, this has been not so much an oversight as a proposal.
The proposal was (and is) that when something is visible, it is a fact, and that facts contain only the truth." ~ John Berger
Not long ago I started a post with this remark from John Berger. It seems apt to me generally. It seems even more apt relative to the (project seven-part) series of posts that Errol Morris has begun on his blog at The New York Times. This appears to be evolving into another of those obsessive debates over whether photography is best understood as providing "evidence" and, if so, what difference it might make if the photographer has set the scene. This, of course, is meant to be a domain-defining exercise; at issue is whether there is such a thing as "documentary" photography that stands over against other genres, especially "art" photography. I think this distinction is more or less wholly unsustainable. Worse, it obstructs sensible thinking about photography and its uses. I've suggested why here. But Morris is addressing the truly sacred among defenders of this dichotomy - the FSA photographers of the 1930s. Documentary is, in the words of Walker Evans, a "style." It is a technology for communicating various things. And that means that it is not simply referential. To think otherwise is just plain ideology.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only thing I find interesting about Errol Morris' boring, tedious, and mostly irrelevant blog posts is that the people at The New York Times are probably paying him some $80K or so per installment.

22 October, 2009 00:31  
Blogger Mike said...

I was willing to give Errol Morris the benefit of the doubt in his first series about whether or not Roger Fenton moved some cannon balls. It seemed like a legitimate exercise to determine the possibilities for deconstructing an image from the distant past. To repeat the exercise now with the FSA photographs simply seems to grant legitimacy to an absurd view of the meaning of photography, or any other expressive undertaking.

22 October, 2009 09:03  

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