a true record
I watched a Masters of Photography episode in which Edward Steichen comments on the truncated truth of a still image:
No one has ever made either in painting or in photography, a complete portrait of a person. I don’t think that’s possible in any one picture. For example everyone has the capacity for laughter and tears, and there’s no place in between that captures the whole thing.
Then I read (more appropriately, looked at) John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye. In the introductory essay, he quotes art historian William Ivins Jr. to make the point that photography is an interpretation, not a true record of reality:
the accepted report of an event is of greater importance than the event, for what we think about and act upon is the symbolic report and not the concrete event itself.
It’s true, not just of photography. The bulk of our working knowledge and perception of the world is acquired through written and visual accounts rather than direct experience. We learn through textbooks, see other parts of the world, other peoples, in videos. When a bomb goes off in Gaza, we trust the papers, trust television to relay what’s happening. That our reality is filtered and shaped by books and media is something so obvious I’m shocked I’ve realized this only now.
Last Wednesday I had a conversation with an acquaintance much older than I am who remembers the Cold War about how we inexplicably forget historical lessons despite how painful it was to learn them. At the moment, it seemed to me that “we forget” is a fairly vague way of describing what happens to our relationship with articles from the past when time passes, but in light of Szarkowski, clearly we forget because once those with direct experienced die, we’re left with only an indirect record which is less evocative, less real, somehow less trustworthy.
This makes sense. Of course our own direct experiences are more reliable than any secondhand account. We’ve come to rely on secondhand sources for information about contemporary events, but what about the past? There’s less of the past on the web, and when keeping up with current events is already like drinking from a fire hose, most of us don’t bother to dig through past lessons anyway. In the modern globally-connected world, when our decisions now have such an accelerated and far-reaching impact, maybe this is hurting us.
And there’s another problem. Visual information is at once more eye-catching and more ambiguous. Szarkowski also points out how terrible still photography is at factual narrative independent of text simply because it’s a frozen moment infinitely prolonged and will never rival video/audio and text for chronology. This is partly the result of a photo’s inability to call a thing by its name. We can’t affix labels, denotations and clear connotations to photos without text or audio. News photos, after all, always have a caption.
This is exactly what Jim Bourg, head photo editor of Reuters, says to Errol Morris as they talk about a photo of Bush standing in the rubble of the towers after 9/11: “That photograph is not the most compelling picture visually unless you know where it took place and when. The caption on that photo is certainly crucial.”
This is part of a larger conversation (Mirror Mirror on the Wall) on Morris’ Times blog with the photo editors of three wire services about photos they selected as representative of Bush and his administration. All three editors selected a version of a photo of the expression on Bush’s face the moment Andrew Card informs him of the 9/11 attacks, which is the perfect illustration of Bourg’s (and Szarkowski’s) point.
Paul J. Rrichards/AFP
The photo itself is not descriptive. If you didn’t know the historical context of the photo, it would just be an unremarkable shot of two men. Bourg is the only one out of the three who refuses to read anything into it. Vincent Amalvy (AFP) thinks the expression is blank, indicating confusion. Santiago Lyon (AP) thinks it’s just a picture of a man listening intently. Coincidentally, earlier in the conversation, Bourg had said:
It’s interesting to see how differently people will interpret the same picture, how a strong supporter of the president will see a picture one way and a critic of the president will see it a different way. There have been some pictures of President George W. Bush where the reactions have actually gone all over the map, where some Bush supporters see interpret the image as taking a cheap shot at him. Other Bush supporters see that same moment as endearing or showing off his character, showing that he’s a regular kind of guy.
I rather expected more from Morris in terms of analysis and questioning, but it’s worth a look if only for what the editors say about access to politicians. Lyon says at one point:
In America when you are part of the presidential pool, you move everywhere with the president. It’s not that way in other countries. When Barack Obama became the president-elect, there is the same access, same obligation as from the president to be as transparent as possible. He can’t decide, “No press now, yes, no.” In France or in Spain or in Germany or in the Middle East or whatever, it is different. The president decides where the press can go and where they can’t go. Here it is different. It’s one of the good points about your democracy. The power of the press is a reality in this country.