The Internet, which is supposed to be killing print journalism, has added much to The New York Times in the form of distinguished online contributors: contrarian Milton scholar Stanley Fish, razor-witted former TV host Dick Cavett and documentary filmmaker Errol Morris ( The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure).
Of these bloggers, Morris is the most eccentric and long-winded. Believing is Seeing, a collection of his columns (without the often illuminating comments of his online readers), is a peripatetic, often fascinating investigation into way we “read” photographs by way of case studies that range from the Crimean War to Abu Ghraib.
Morris, who confesses he does not like to take photographs and whose interest in the medium he describes is both pedantic and prurient, asks interesting questions and then goes to extraordinary lengths to try to answer them. The most obsessive of his investigations is of a pair of photographs by English photographer Roger Fenton made in 1855 in the Crimea.
Taken from the same camera position, the exposures show a road leading toward a desolate landscape that the British had named the Valley of the Shadow of Death. In one, cannonballs lie strewn in a ditch; in the other, they are scattered over the road. The second image, the one more commonly reproduced, becomes a turning point in the history of photography when the medium switches from being straightforwardly factual to overtly symbolic. Fenton, unlike a history painter who can depict an entire battle, is constrained to focus his camera on a significant, eloquent detail.
The real question has always been whether the photograph is staged. In her influential but lightly researched On Photography, Susan Sontag claims that Fenton himself oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs. Morris tries to prove her wrong. Perhaps, he suggests, English soldiers had carried out a recycling operation on the cannonballs between exposures. He interviews, at length, half a dozen curators and historians, flies to Crimea, borrows a cannonball from a local museum, photographs the site and then begins to consult pixel-peeping photographic analysts. He ultimately confirms the order in which the images were made, but Fenton’s reason for setting up the photograph remains a mystery.
Morris’s forensic fervour is directed at several other famous photographs, notably the iconic images that Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and Walker Evans made in the 1930s for the Farm Security Administration. He also recounts in great detail the history of an ambrotype portrait of three children found in the hand of an unidentified soldier at Gettysburg. Francis Bourns, a Philadelphia physician, acquires the photograph from an innkeeper, publicizes it and eventually locates the family. Then, in a move that could have been scripted by the Coen brothers, Bourne founds an orphanage for the children of Civil War dead, installs a sadistic director and uses the charity for a giant financial scam.
But the strongest section of Believing is Seeing concerns the infamous images that came of Abu Ghraib., the subject of Morris’s documentary Standard Operating Procedure. In the West, the most searing image is of the hooded man standing on a box with wires attached to his body. But in the Middle East, the photograph that caused the greatest uproar was a snap of Sabrina Harman, a pretty young American woman, smiling and giving a thumbs-up over the body of Manadi al-Jamadi, an Iraqi battered to death during interrogation by the Central Intelligence Agency.
As Morris writes, “There are many photographs of al-Jamadi’s body, but it is the photograph of Sabrina with his body that stands out among them. … The photograph misdirects us. The public sees the photograph and assumes that Sabrina is the killer and directs their anger at Sabrina, rather the real killers.” It was the smile that incriminated her in the court of public opinion, although typically, Morris is able to find an academic who, by analyzing facial muscles, can confidently say whether a smile is one of genuine amusement, or simply saying cheese.
The irony, of course, is that it was these prison snapshots that opened up the horror of Abu Ghraib, but the only people to be charged were not the killers of al-Jamadi, but those who caused his murder to become public. It is the strongest contribution of this sometimes sprawling and digressive book to cast a clear light on this dismal and unresolved affair.
Geoffrey James is a photographer whose work probes Western society through ideal spaces such as gardens and wastelands such as mining sites.
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