Errol Morris Looks For Truth Outside Photographs

Originally published on September 17, 2011 9:12 pm

Errol Morris is regarded as one of the world's most important filmmakers and is best known for his documentaries The Thin Blue Line and the Oscar-award winning Fog of War.

But before he was a filmmaker, he was a detective and he's always been interested in uncovering the mysteries of photographs. In his new book, Believing Is Seeing, Morris focuses on the things you can't see in photographs and the importance of what lies outside the frame.

Morris tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that his obsession with photos began when he was a small boy and his father died.

"I was only 2 years old [and] don't have any memory of him at all. But there were photographs of him all over the house," he says. "I remember looking at these photographs; this is someone that I should know, probably should remember, but there's this mystery."

Photo Manipulation

Trying to recover the context of photographs is a theme in Morris' book. In one example, he takes his critical eye to two photos of the Crimean War taken by Roger Fenton in the 1850s. Both images are shot from the same spot, but one shows markedly more cannonballs on the road than the other. Photography scholars have long considered the photo with more cannonballs as the first instance of a photo manipulation. They say it was done by Fenton to drum up drama about the war for his British readership.

But Morris disagrees. He says no one can be sure if Fenton added or removed the cannonballs from the frame.

"I walked away thinking I really don't know. We all know that staging is that big no-no in photography. I would call it a fantasy that we can create some photographic truth by not moving anything, not touching anything, not interacting with the scene that we're photographing in any way," he says. "If you think you're going to create an unposed photograph, think again. There is no such thing."

Staged Dust Bowl

Morris says photographers have been posing photos as long as they've been taking them. During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt sent out photographers to capture what life was like during the Dust Bowl. An iconic image taken by Arthur Rothstein of a cow skull on a barren landscape was meant to show the drama of the drought.

"Then they found out he had taken multiple photographs of the cow skull and clearly it had been moved," he says. "Well, people who were opposed to the Roosevelt administration seized on this. They became outraged, they felt manipulated, deceived; [there were] allegations that Rothstein had actually brought the cow skull with him from Washington."

Even though there actually was a drought, Morris says, critics were quickly caught up in the deception.

"Was he trying to deceive the public? Was he trying to use the photograph for propaganda? If not him, was it the newspaper editors who placed it in their newspapers?" he says. "And it goes into that whole question of what is propaganda. Can any photograph be used for the purposes of propaganda?"

Parallels Between Filmmaking, Photography

Morris says when he first started making films, he was accused of making documentaries the wrong way.

"People would say, 'You're not supposed to use Philip Glass music, you're not supposed to use reenactments.' And my answer then — and it's still my answer over the years — is that style is not what guarantees truth," he says.

Morris says there's no such thing as a true or false photograph, and that doesn't really matter anyway. He says the most important thing is to ask any documentarian — in film, photography or print — to pursue the truth.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, Host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Errol Morris is considered one of the most important filmmakers. Roger Ebert once called him a magician as great as Hitchcock or Fellini. Morris is best known for his documentaries "The Thin Blue Line" and the Oscar-winning "Fog of War." But before he was a filmmaker, Errol Morris was actually a private detective, and he's always been interested in uncovering the mysteries of photographs, the things you can't see in the image, the things outside the frame.

He's now written a new book exploring the truth behind a series of well-known photos. It's called "Believing Is Seeing." And he says his photo obsession began when he was a young boy.

ERROL MORRIS: I lost my father. Father died when I was only 2 years old. Don't have any memory of him at all. But there were photographs of him all over the house. I remember looking at these photographs - this is someone that I should know, probably should remember, but this mystery, who is this man who is really central to my life in so many, many, many ways but also absent?

RAZ: Errol Morris, you open the book with a story about one of the most iconic photographs in history, certainly war photographs. It was taken during the Crimean War in 1855 by Roger Fenton who was a photojournalist, and it shows a gully. And there were two photos, actually, one which shows all these cannonballs on the left side of the picture, the other showing about a dozen more cannonballs on the right side of the picture.

And it led a lot of people to think this was staged, this was fake. You were so obsessed with finding the truth you actually went to the Crimea. You actually went to the site. What did you find out? I mean, was it a propaganda photograph to get people in Britain to support what was becoming a very unpopular war at the time?

MORRIS: I walked away thinking I really don't know, and I came away thinking a lot about the whole question of staging. We all know that staging, it's that big no-no in photography. I would call it a fantasy that we can create some photographic truth by not moving anything, not touching anything, not interacting with the scene that we're photographing in any way.

Part of the book is the argument that every single photograph ever taken is posed in some way. If you think you're going to create an unposed photograph, think again. There is no such thing.

RAZ: I want to ask you about another series of photographs you looked at, and this deals with the FSA, the Farm Security Administration. And during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, his administration sent out all these famous photographers, right, these iconic photos of the Great Depression. And it was discovered at the time that some of these photographs were actually staged, and this caused a huge controversy. What happened with those photos?

MORRIS: One of the most controversial photographs taken by Arthur Rothstein is a photograph of a cow skull. Then they found out he had taken multiple photographs of the cow skull and clearly, it had been moved. Well, people opposed to the Roosevelt administration seized on this. They became outraged. They felt manipulated, deceived, allegations that Rothstein actually had brought the cow skull with him from Washington.

RAZ: I should say he took this in North Dakota to sort of show how bad the drought had gotten in that area at the time.

MORRIS: The strange, ironic, ridiculous part of it, there was a horrible drought going on.

RAZ: Indeed. Right. Right.

MORRIS: Whether the skull was posed or not seems supplanted by an even more complex issue. Was he trying to deceive the public? Was he trying to use the photograph for propaganda? If not him, was it the newspaper editors who placed it in their newspapers? And it goes into that whole question of what is propaganda? Can any photograph be used for the purposes of propaganda? It's a very interesting, to me, still a fascinating question.

RAZ: There's also photographs taken by Walker Evans at the time where, you know, he moved furniture around when he was photographing a certain family to show how bad poverty had become. That was also controversial, also you could say staged, but you would say that's not the whole story.

MORRIS: When I first started years and years ago as a documentary filmmaker, I was accused of making documentaries the wrong way. People would say, you're not supposed to use Phillip Glass music. You're not supposed to use re-enactments. And my answer then, and it's still my answer over the years, is that style is not what guarantees truth.

There may be no such thing as a true photograph or a false photograph or a false photograph. They may have nothing whatsoever to do with truth or falsity. But what we can ask of our documentary filmmakers, our photographers, our journalists is that somehow they're engaged in the pursuit of truth. That, to me, is the important thing.

RAZ: That's filmmaker Errol Morris. His new book of essays is called "Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography." Errol Morris, thank you so much.

MORRIS: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.