Friday, October 23, 2009

Errol Morris: The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock

For those that haven't seen it, I thought I'd post a link to Errol Morris' seven-part series in the New York Times, "The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock."  Morris has been analyzing work done by the FSA photographers, presenting arguments about manipulations made by various photographers and how these photographs were then used in and received by the media.

I find this relevant in light of recent controversy surrounding photographs submitted to the New York Times itself. (See:  APhotoEditor's postings: NYTimes Magazine Pulls Photo Essay After Questions of Digital Alteration are Raised, and NYT Reminds Freelance Photographers "No Unauthorized Alteration of Photos)

But, it's nothing new.  There will always be the belief that "documentary photography" should mean that the initial subject/scene as well as the resulting photograph of it should never be altered, else the photograph isn't a truthful/valid document.  (What Spain Sees in Robert Capa's Civil War Photo)

The counterpoint to that is that unless the camera could set up itself and take pictures mechanically with no human interaction, there will always be a certain amount of subjectivity in "documentary" photography.  Morris states:

That [a photographer] should have been no more than a surveillance camera programmed to record a scene directly in front of his/her nose? But even a surveillance camera is programmed or, at least, positioned to look in one direction rather than another. On close examination, the issue of posing collapses into absurdity.

By its very nature as a tool for cropping a scene, in using a camera, a photographer is always making a choice between what is included and what is excluded in the frame, what is given more or less importance/weight, and how visual elements may interact with one another to tell a story.  The photographer is always involved, it's just the extent to which that involvement takes place. 

Does that involvement make a photograph any less valid?  Maybe instead of believing that a documentary-style photograph is an "absolute truth," it should instead be considered as being a photographer's visual response to a specific time and place.

New York Times: "The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock" by Errol Morris

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6 – TK
Part 7 – TK

For more on Errol Morris:

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