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Errol Morris is well-known for making documentary films. “The Thin Blue Line” is credited with helping overturn a murder conviction. And “The Fog of War” – an intense conversation with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara interspersed with images of war – earned Morris an Oscar. His films challenge viewers to take a second look, a third – and more. Nothing is as it seems at first glance. Lately Morris has turned his attention to writing. In a new book, he explores his fascination – some might say obsession – with photographs. What they reveal and, just as often, what they conceal. Guest host Laura Knoy talks with the author and filmmaker about the mystery inherent in every photograph.
- Errol Morris Academy Award-winning director of "The Fog of War" and recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Award. His other films include "Standard Operating Procedure"; "Mr. Death"; "Fast,Cheap, and Out of Control"; "A Brief History of Time" and "The Thin Blue Line."
Errol Morris’ father died when he was not quite three years old. His only visual knowledge of his father came through photographs. Ever since, Morris has been, more or less, obsessed with the relationship between images and reality. His documentary films have won numerous awards including an Oscar for “The Fog of War.”
Before Filmmaking, Detective Work
Morris: “My own believe is that detectives are born, not made. When I was working as a detective and an unemployed filmmaker, I had gotten some money from public broadcasting to start work on what became ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ a two- and-a-half-year investigation into a murder in Dallas, Texas. And I said well, thank God I don’t have to be a detective anymore. But of course, that was untrue. I continued doing what I was doing all along. There’s an investigative element to all of my movies. What amazes me over the years is the overlap between being a detective, a investigator, a journalist, how they all somehow coalesce.”
One Main Rule for Journalism
“It really doesn’t depend on how you tell the story, it depends on your commitment to try and uncover the truth. That should be at the center of any journalistic enterprise. Am I sad that “The Thin Blue Line,” which is probably the film that I’ll be remembered for, was not nominated for an Oscar? You bet ya. But I’ve gotten over it and I did win an Oscar for another film.”
The Power of Photographs
“Photographs connect us to reality, to the world. Part of that is my fascination with documentary filmmaking. It is trying to recover really what’s out there, what’s out there in the world. What’s true, what’s false, what exists, what is mere fantasy.”
Asking Questions About Images
Morris explored some of the disturbing images that came from army personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and found that many of them were much more complex than they seemed at first glance. “We often read about war stories after the fact, about soldiers trapped in a situation where there is no moral clarity. We may like to think that there’s always moral clarity. But trapped in a situation where seemingly there is a lack of any kind of moral clarity, then what do you do? What is right and wrong in that context?”
You can read the full transcript here.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from Errol Morris’s “Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography.” Copyright 2011 by Errol Morris. Excerpted here by kind permission of Penguin Press HC:
MS. LAURA KNOYThanks for joining us, I'm Laura Knoy, New Hampshire public radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Errol Morris' father died when he was not quite three years old. His only visual knowledge of his father came through photographs. Ever since, Morris has been, more or less, obsessed with the relationship between images and reality. His documentary films have won numerous awards including an Oscar for "The Fog of War."
MS. LAURA KNOYNow, in a new book, he takes the reader on an intellectual, as well as, visual journey showing why, very little, should be taken at face value. The book is titled "Believing is Seeing" and author Errol Morris joins me in the studio. And, Errol Morris, it's great to meet you. Thanks for being here.
MR. ERROL MORRISThanks for having me here.
KNOYWe'll also take your questions and comments throughout the hour. Join us 1-800-433-8850, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or joins us on Facebook or Twitter. And I want to just jump right in with the vision thing because you do, right at the beginning of the book, "Believing is Seeing" deals a lot with the limits of vision. Tell us, if you could, about your own vision problems as a child because I think that plays in here.
MORRISI was operated on, I was very, very young, for what is known as a lazy eye. And as a result, I've never had binocular vision. I see perfectly okay, but I'm not about to enjoy 3D movies in the near future.
KNOYWhat is that mean, binocular vision? What do you mean by that?
MORRISThat your eyes, essentially, work together and produce a 3D image. Basically, I have two eyes that work independently of each other.
KNOYVery interesting. So how much do you think this vision problem actually, maybe, worked to your benefit, caused you to see things differently, that most people don't see?
MORRISHard to know how things would've turned out if I had had normal vision, but I do believe that, call it what you will, suspicion, doubt about the relationship between visual imagery and reality, I do think comes in part from my own problems as a little boy.
KNOYWhat about those years you spent, Errol, as a detective before you got into the documentary business? Do you think that also affected your way of seeing things in such great detail? And you do that in the book and we'll talk about that in a minute.
MORRISMy own believe is that detectives are born, not made. When I was working as a detective and an unemployed filmmaker, I had gotten some money from public broadcasting to start work on what became "The Thin Blue Line," a two and a half year investigation into a murder in Dallas, Texas. And I said well, thank God I don’t have to be a detective anymore. But of course, that was untrue. I continued doing what I was doing all along.
MORRISThere's an investigative element to all of my movies. What amazes me over the years is the overlap between being a detective, a investigator, a journalist, how they all somehow coalesce.
KNOYAnd you get that in the book. And the book, in a way, almost feels like a book version of some of the investigative work that you've done in your films.
KNOYWhat's the central idea that you're trying to get across, then, in this book, Errol?
MORRISThat we -- and I'm just repeating what you said earlier in the program, photographs should be taken at face value, that we should ask questions about what we're looking at. I often say that the obvious is really never obvious. We many think we know what we're looking at but we may be deceived by ourselves as well as other people.
KNOYAnd the book is full of examples of photographers giving us their take of a picture, maybe not deceiving us. Before we get into the different pictures in the book and the intense detailed stories behind these pictures, I did want to ask you this, Errol, how much of this book is a response to the fact that you didn't win the Oscar for "The Thin Blue Line" due to objections over the fact that parts of it were staged or posed? I got the sense, from looking at this book, that you're saying, look, people have good intent with important stories to tell, have always done this.
MORRISAlways posed things? Yes. I have one simple principle about journalism. It really doesn't depend on how you tell the story, it depends on your commitment to try and uncover the truth. That should be at the center of any journalistic enterprise. Am I sad that "The Thin Blue Line," which is probably the film that I'll be remembered for, was not nominated for an Oscar? You bet yea. But I've gotten over it and I did win an Oscar for another film.
KNOYThat's right, for "The Fog of War" about...
KNOY...Defense Secretary McNamara. So is this book kind of a response to those people who said, look, documentary filmmakers shouldn't stage things.
MORRISIt's an attempt to capture ideas about photography that I've had for years and years and years and years. It's certainly part of my filmmaking but it's really part of how I have thought about filmmaking and photography. It's the Sherlock Holmes in me. Let's see if we can investigate a photograph, particularly a iconic photographs, photographs that everybody has seen.
MORRISEverybody thinks they know what they're looking at. Take a photograph like that and scrutinize it, obsessively. And ask questions, what am I really looking at? This image is so unbelievable familiar. What am I really looking at? It does go back to my childhood again, my father who died when I was two years old.
MORRISPhotographs everywhere in the house of him, but who was he? A person that you're so connected to. Who was this man that I never really am going to have a chance to meet, I'm never going to have a chance to talk to? I'm only going to be able to hear about him indirectly and to see him indirectly through photographs.
KNOYIt's almost -- there's a maddening quality to the photographs of your father because there he is, but you don't know anything beyond that picture.
MORRISI know a couple of things beyond the picture but it's the feeling of someone being there and not there at the same time. Of being connected and not connected. And I believe it really captures, for me, the experience of looking at a photograph. Almost as if you're looking at reality and peering, often, into the past as if you were standing there in the position of the camera and looking out at the scene that the camera records. The temptation is to say, well, that's all there is. This is simple, so very, very, very simple. And what I would respectfully claim, not so simple.
KNOYAnd there's example, after example in the book and let's get into some of those Errol. But I want to invite our listeners to join us too. Our number is 1-800-433-8850, 1-800-433-8850. Our guest this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show" is Academy Award winning filmmaker Errol Morris. Some of the films you may have heard of "The Thin Blue Line" and "The Fog of War." His new book is called "Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography."
KNOYSo let's take that first case study that you begin within the book, Errol. Two photographs from the Crimean War. First of all, just remind us what the War on Crimea was because a lot of people will forget. And correct me if I'm wrong, this was one of the first wars where film, where photographs were actually used to document what was going on? So just a little primmer on what this is all about before we go into the actual photographs.
MORRISLike many wars, we often forget what the nature of the conflict was. But we do remember the carnage. The Crimean War, first example of trench warfare, soldiers dug in a front that for months and months and months, stayed in the same place. An ordinance, cannonballs being fired back and forth, back and forth. Roger Fenton is often credited as being the first photo journalist, the first person to take a camera into a war and to take pictures.
MORRISAlmost all of these pictures are not of battles, most of them are portraits of soldiers, but he took these two pictures in what became known as the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Pictures are virtually identical. Dare I say, from the same tripod position, the camera wasn't moved. And yet, there's a difference. In one of the photographs, there are cannonballs littered on a road and in the other, the cannonballs are not there. And that's the beginning of, for me, a mystery.
KNOYSo that's the question, did he move the cannonballs or not? And in the book, you go into this in great detail. And draw some conclusions about what those, who document our news, are thinking, their intentions. We will talk more, Mr. Morris, after a very short break. Our number again is 1-800-433-8850 and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
KNOYWelcome back. I'm Laura Knoy sitting in for Diane Rehm. Our guest this hour is Errol Morris, Academy Award-winning director of "The Fog of War," recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Award. His other films include "The Thin Blue Line" and "A Brief History of Time." His new book is called "Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography." And several of the photos that we'll talk about are on our website drshow.org.
KNOYSo just before the break, Errol, we were talking about the Crimean War photos and they look almost exactly alike except in one picture there's cannonballs littered all over the road and in the other picture the cannonballs are on the side of the road. First of all, before we figure out how you concluded which picture was true, what's the larger question about whether it's okay or not to move cannonballs around when you are shooting war photos?
MORRISThe larger question is about posing. Were these photographs posed? And if they were does that somehow make them untruthful? There're lots of ways that you can address questions about anything, photography in particular. You can come up with various general theories about things. I like the Sherlock Holmes method which is -- call it obsessive, the obsessive fascination with details. Rather than come up with a general theory I prefer to scrutinize individual photographs, or in this case a pair of photographs, and see if I can learn something about photography.
KNOYAnd you really did go to great lengths. You went to the area, you studied it in detail.
MORRISI went to the Crimea, yes.
KNOYSo what's the bottom line? Did he move them or not?
MORRISWe may never know. Clearly someone moved them because they're in one photograph and not in the other.
MORRISWe know the order. I was able to figure out the order in which the photographs were taken. But in the process of looking at them we learn a lot about how we look at things and about the nature of visual images.
KNOYWell, like what? What do we learn?
MORRISWe learn that often this whole question of posing is something that really doesn't come out of the photographs themselves, but about our preconceptions about the material that we're looking at. I'm fascinated by the fact that even if these photographs were posed, both of them say, are we really saying that this is not a photograph of the Crimean War, that it doesn't telegraph the horrible carnage of that war.
MORRISIn a later chapter in the book, I examine a very controversial photograph taken by one of the Roosevelt photographers, Arthur Rothstein. The Roosevelt Administration had arranged for photographers to take pictures of dustbowl America and produced in the process some of the greatest images of photography, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, etcetera, etcetera. Well, there was an iconic image -- it became an iconic image of a cow skull.
KNOYDried out on this parched cracked earth, right, showing just how bad it was.
MORRISYes. And the photograph appeared in newspapers around the country as an illustration of just how bad that drought in the Dakotas had become. Well, Rothstein made a mistake. He took more than one. In fact, he took six photographs of this cow skull, moving it around in this landscape until he could get himself a picture that aesthetically satisfied.
KNOYSure, he's a professional. He wants it to look great.
MORRISHe wants it to look good. And immediately he was attacked, the picture was attacked as something that was posed, untruthful, manipulative, propaganda. Well, guess what? You look at the picture and you'd think there was a horrible drought in the Dakotas, and there was. There was a horrible drought in the Dakotas. Did the fact he moved the cow skull 5' this way or 5' that way somehow mean that the photograph had no evidentiary value? I think not.
KNOYThere's other examples though in the book where the photograph did, you say, have a political purpose. I'm thinking about the chapter on the Israeli bombing of Lebanon after what is real, were threats from Hezbollah in 2006. And there's that, again, iconic photograph of a plastic Mickey Mouse toy in the middle of this, you know, devastated Lebanese street. And it's -- you look at it and your heart just tightens up because clearly a child's home has been bombed. And this child, who knows what happened to him or her.
KNOYSo that picture was taken by the Associated Press. And go ahead, Errol, finish up the story for us there. It became sort of a symbol for people. But people attached different symbolic meaning to it.
MORRISThat's correct, anti-Israeli, anti-Hamas. It was used in both ways oddly enough. I sent myself this task. One thing that I know about photographs is that they rip something out of the fabric of reality. You look at a photograph you don't see before and you don't see after, you don't see to the left or to the right, above or below. To use the fancy word it's decontextualized. You don't get the narrative, if you like, of how that story fits into the world.
KNOYBut we think we do.
MORRISWe think we do. And I said as another one of my obsessive enterprises, let's talk to the guy who took one of these photographs and ask him how the photograph was taken. And better yet let's have him go through the entire day in that war zone that he spent taking photographs. Let's find out about what really happened, or to the best of my ability. Let's put those photographs back into history.
KNOYLet's make them come alive again.
MORRISLet's make them come alive again. And the story is an immensely interesting one. Often a photograph which can, to us, seem obviously propaganda was not taken to be propaganda at all, but has been used in a way different from what was originally intended.
KNOYAnd what's so interesting then about this Mickey Mouse in the devastation of Lebanon photo is you tell us that shortly after that photo came out it had such an emotional chord with people who saw it that other people -- other news photographers started doing the same thing. And so there's this half a dozen photos of toys amid the rubble. It's the toy amid the rubble series.
MORRISWell, in our lives there is a monkey-see-monkey-do principle. We see something and we imitate it, absolutely.
KNOYBecause it works.
MORRISBecause it works.
KNOYBut is it honest?
MORRISTruth for me ultimately is linguistic. I'm not sure whether photographs are true or false. In fact, I'm pretty sure that they are neither. You put a sentence up against a photograph, a caption, a paragraph explaining what you're looking at, that changes everything.
MORRISWhat I would ask the reader -- each of these stories, and they are mystery stories properly considered -- I'd ask them to think about what they're looking at and to join me in an investigation. To join me in this process of thinking about the question, what really am I looking at? And to understand the need to look beyond the frame of a photograph and to think about -- I don't know a better way to describe it -- the world around it.
MORRISIt's an odd way of doing history. This occurred to me early on. You pick up a history book. Take a history book of the Crimean War for example. You start at the beginning, it tells you about all of the political forces that led to this conflict. And you proceed chronologically step by step by step. A photograph throws all of that out the window. All of a sudden when you look at a photograph -- say that Fenton photograph of the Valley of the Shadow of Death -- you're in the middle of things. You've entered history wormhole into the past. You're suddenly not in some general story but in some specific time and place, a moment.
MORRISAnd I often would say to myself, what if I could walk into a photograph. What if I could actually step into that photograph that I'm looking at and then start to ask questions?
KNOYWouldn't that be wonderful?
MORRISIt'd be really interesting. We can do that as investigators but we can never really go back there in time but we can try to do the next best thing.
KNOYWhich is investigate in rich intense detail the story of this photograph, right.
KNOYAnd that's what you do in the book.
MORRISPhotographs connect us to reality, to the world. Part of that is my fascination with documentary filmmaking. It is trying to recover really what's out there, what's out there in the world. What's true, what's false, what exists, what is mere fantasy. And this book is very, very much about those kinds of questions.
KNOYAnd again the book is "Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography." The author is our guest this hour, Errol Morris. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you want to join us now we'll take your calls at 1-800-433-8850. And, Errol, let's go first to Mike in Dickerson, Md. Hi, Mike. Thanks for waiting. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MIKEThank you, Laura. I've known Errol for a long time so I just wanted to say hello. But I also wanted to raise a point about what he was saying about being -- having misaligned eyes when he was younger and they were corrected. It was a condition -- it's a condition called strabismus. And one of the interesting things, I ran a program when I was working at the National Eye Institute at NIH and we funded a lot of research in this area. And it's actually what goes on in the brain where you -- these perceptions are made one way or another.
MIKEBut a colleague or a friend or a grantee of the National Eye Institute, I don't know what the best way to phrase her, Margaret Livingston at Harvard University and her colleague Bevil Conway had been looking at depth perception in artists, because poor depth perception might be an asset in a profession where the goal or the task is to flatten a 3D scene onto a canvas, or for that matter, a photograph.
MIKEWe -- and she found evidence that a surprisingly large number of talented artists, including no less than Rembrandt, might have been stereo blind based on the fact that looking at their self portraits...
MORRISYou mean I'm in good company?
MIKEWell, I thought I'd just throw you that bone.
KNOYWell, Mike, it's fascinating and thank you so much for that. It's kinda what we were talking about earlier, you know.
MIKEYeah, I mean, if you look at their self portraits of a number of these people you can see the misaligned eye. Often it's what is commonly called walleyed.
KNOYOkay. And, Mike, thanks a lot for calling in. Go ahead. What do you think, Errol? We talked about this earlier but...
MORRISWell, I mentioned in Oliver Sacks' article on stereopsis -- on stereoptic vision and Oliver Sacks was rhapsodizing about stereovision. And I kept arguing, well, I don't have it. Sour grapes perhaps. But I argued that it had made me curious about the world in a different way. It made me want to examine vision critically in a way that I might not have if my vision had been perfect.
KNOYWell, Mike, it's real interesting and thanks a lot for joining us. And our number 1-800-433-8850. And let's go to Strongsville, Ohio. Anthony's on "The Diane Rehm Show." Hi, Anthony, go ahead.
ANTHONYHello. Thank you for having me on your show.
ANTHONYI was just calling. I was an art teacher for 31 years and part of the area that I taught was photography as an art form. We had students taking pictures. And the one thing that I noticed over those years was that each person who took a photograph had a different interpretation. And in many cases the reason behind that was some of the values that they had. I did my Master's thesis on values and perception.
ANTHONYAnd I agree so much with what I've heard so far. I just wondered as -- the photographs that I now take -- I'm retired. One of the things that I talked about in the class was the fact that students were looking at some of the photographs from the 1968 Chicago riots. And I said you can't believe what you see all the time because they can be slanted to get you to believe something that really isn't happening. And the fact that they took pictures in one case where the police were vilified as the aggressors. And then in another with the same set of pictures the students were vilified.
ANTHONYAnd I just think that that raised questions with them as to what they were looking at. And that's what I was trying to do. But I was also trying to make sure that they understand that photography is really an art form (unintelligible) ...
KNOYAnthony, thank you so much. Yeah, and it's exactly, exactly what you talk about in the book, Errol.
MORRISHey, appearances can be deceiving, even appearances in a photograph.
KNOYWell, thanks for that call, Anthony. And we'll talk after a short break about some of the other photographs that raise the point that you exactly raise, Anthony. So keep listening and we'll take more of your calls too after a break. The number 1-800-433-8850. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
KNOYWelcome back. I'm Laura Knoy sitting in for Diane Rehm. Our guest this hour is Errol Morris, Academy Award winning director of "The Fog of War." His new book is called "Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography." We're taking your calls at 1-800-433-8850 or emails at email@example.com. You can join us on Facebook or Twitter as well.
KNOYAnd, Errol, I want to ask you about another mystery that you solve in this book. There's two photographs in the book that I'm sure everyone has seen. One is that iconic photo of a hooded torture victim at Abu Ghraib in Iraq at the U.S. military prison there with his arms spread out. So you dissect that one. There's another one though that's a little less well known from Abu Ghraib. It's of Sabrina Harman known as one of the seven bad apples of that scandal. And there's a picture of her where she's giving us a big grin, a thumbs up. She's next to the head and shoulders of a dead torture victim. How do you think, Errol, most people interpret that picture? And why did you think there might be another story behind it when you looked at it?
MORRISWell, this probably tells a lot about me, but I always think there's another story or at least the possibility of another story and how would I know if didn't investigate. These are some of the most well known images in history, the photographs from Abu Ghraib. People were appalled. Many people felt then and still feel now that our whole image of America changed with the release of those photographs. But it occurred to me that no one had bothered to ask what are we looking at.
MORRISIt's that central question in my book "Believing is Seeing." What are we really looking at? Yes, on some level it's obvious. Not so obvious in my view that it's not worth looking into more deeply. And so I decided to interview many of those people who had taken those infamous photographs and to ask questions about them, same thing that I was describing earlier, to contextualize them.
KNOYWhat did you find out first of all about that Sabrina Harman photo, which so many reacted to, you know, this woman is terrible? How can she smile and give a thumbs up next to a person who's been tortured to death?
MORRISThere was an article in the New York Post where she was described as the ghoul next door.
MORRISAnd there was the suggestion, I certainly read the photograph that way, that she had been in some way responsible for the murder, that she was implicated by the very existence of that photograph. And yet the story was much, much more complex. And in part these photographs were being taken to expose a cover up. The soldiers who took the photographs had nothing whatsoever to do with this man's death. And I uncovered a deeper and more interesting story. We would all love the world to be a truly simple place where good and evil are easy to identify and then we can just put labels on them. But often human motivation is something much more mysterious, much more elusive.
KNOYWell, and Sabrina told you that her motivation was -- and it was not a very satisfying answer. You know, you said, why did you smile and give a thumbs up? And, well, that's just something I do when I'm getting my picture taken because I'm uncomfortable getting my picture taken.
MORRISAnd indeed there were hundreds of photographs that had been taken of her with her smiling with her thumbs up. It is something that she did. It's not to excuse these photographs. It's to say that there's a story behind it. And this story was a woman deeply conflicted about her role at Abu Ghraib and who imagined herself -- this may seem hard to believe, imagined herself as a photo journalist who was going to expose what she thought were crimes. That in itself is fascinating.
KNOYDo you believe her when she says given her smile, given the thumbs up? If she really wanted to expose the abuses of the Army, shouldn't she have been, you know, frowning with a thumbs down?
MORRISPerhaps, yes. She was willing to share with me letters that she had written to her girlfriend back in the United States where she talked quite openly about her conflicted feelings, the fact that she had been witness to a murder, that she was part of a cover up, that perhaps she should become a whistle blower. I find it compelling. We often read about war stories after the fact, about soldiers trapped in a situation where there is no moral clarity. We may like to think that there's always moral clarity. But trapped in a situation where seemingly there is a lack of any kind of moral clarity, then what do you do? What is right and wrong in that context?
MORRISSo I found these photographs again a powerful window into history. Don't take them for granted. Don't simply say I know what I'm looking at and there's no need to look further. Ask questions and see what you arrive at. And in this case I think it's a powerful, complex and compelling story.
KNOYWe've got some comments from Facebook and some emails that I wanna share with you, Errol, as well as calls, 1-800-433-8850. Here's a Facebook comment from Peter. He says, "Mr. Morris, aren't you asking the viewer of a photograph to consider context? And isn't contextualization part of the artist's responsibility or decision making process?" That's a fascinating question. Thanks, Peter.
MORRISWell, yes. Every time a photograph is taken, it's posed in some real sense. It can be posed merely by the fact that we're excluding stuff. We often think that it's what we see that's an issue, but it can just as well be what we don't see.
KNOYAnd you said, for example, with those Crimean war photographs of the road, what if there were an elephant just outside the photographer's frame? Is that staging it, the fact that he didn't wait to get the elephant in the picture?
MORRISYeah, he took the picture before the elephant crossed through the frame. My own view is that all photographs are posed. Photographs are neither true nor false. And we have to look at them critically. It's amazing how just a caption underneath a photograph can change its meaning. Look, I'm not saying that you should close your eyes and never look at any of them again. That's not really going to work out so well. But it is my hope that reading this book and engaging in these mystery stories leads to a critical kind of inquiry. It makes you look at photographs in a new and interesting way.
KNOYLet's take another call, Errol. And again the number 1-800-433-8850. And in Washington, D.C. Tom is on the line. Hi, Tom, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Go ahead.
KNOYHi, Tom, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Go ahead.
TOMYeah, my question is about old black and white photos and how we perceive them. I recently just saw by chance on the web some color photos from turn of the 20th century Russia. And the quality of the color was incredible on them. And it made -- the context that I looked at those photos was so much different than -- it seemed like they were just taken yesterday. And when I look -- you were talking about the Crimean War photo, looking at old World War II photo -- or World War I photos. And what's so interesting about them is just the graininess that makes them seem old and it -- just I guess my question is what does he -- the context you see, is that affected by that black and white and the color? Does he ever see that?
KNOYRight. Tom, thanks for the call. Go ahead, Errol.
MORRISIt's all part of the story, black and white, color, infrared, grain, more grain, less grain. One of the amazing things about old photographs, you can take a look at photographs of Abraham Lincoln from 1865, there was a process, wet plate process, some of the photographs have enormous detail. They may not be printed that way all the time, but they have extraordinary detail, as much as we would find in a modern photograph. And that in itself is surprising and arresting.
MORRISI'm of course interested in the various ways in which photographs are made, the processes that are used. But this book has a different kind of focus. It's asking questions about here is an image. What is its relationship to reality? Most people who write about photographs write about the beliefs that we have about them. This is an iconic photograph of something. This is an iconic photograph of something else. But they rarely go into the detail of trying to recover the reality of what we're looking at. And so I'm arguing for a different kind of enterprise. At least I like to think I am.
KNOYWell, and, Tom, thanks for that call. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And, Errol, let's take another all. This is Chris in Little Rock, Arkansas. Go ahead, Chris. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Welcome.
CHRISYes. I wanted to know, thank you for taking my call, if we cannot trust a photograph, can we trust a single eyewitness account of a serious crime such as a homicide?
KNOYWell, I think you discovered that when you did "The Thin Blue Line," I mean...
MORRISIndeed, I made...
KNOY...a lot wrong with that case.
MORRIS...I made a movie about a murder of a Dallas police officer. And five eyewitnesses who came forward and identified the culprit, the only problem is it was the wrong man. An innocent man was convicted and sentenced to death for a murder which he had nothing whatsoever to do with. And I was able to prove that he was innocent, get his conviction overturned. And it seems amazing to me now, but it's true, I got the real murderer to confess.
KNOYThanks a lot for that call, Chris. Yeah, that's quite relevant to your career, Errol. Here's...
MORRISDid I do that?
KNOYYou did. Here's an email from Vince. He says, "As a commercial photographer, I am all too aware of the, quote, "Lies," that photography can tell. And war photography is no exception." He says, "Think of the Civil War photos of Timothy O'Sullivan and Alexander Gardner at Gettysburg. They arrive three days after the battle was over and they move bodies around to make for better photos." You talk about some of the Civil War photography too in this book. That's another case study that you have.
MORRISYes. A different kind of case study. One thing that's always fascinated me, the more famous a photograph is, particularly a war photograph, the more likely people are to say it was posed or fraudulent or fake. Yes, there are these allegations that I believe are true, that Gardner and Sullivan moved bodies at Gettysburg and (unintelligible) in order to get a better picture.
KNOYIt does seem amazing though when you think about it. I mean, moving cannon balls is one thing, moving bodies...
MORRISBut let's remember something, are we saying that they weren't these battle fields, that this wasn't the Civil War, that we aren't taken into a moment in history? It's the amazing thing about photography. We know -- this is something we all know. We know we're powerfully connected to the world. Someone set up a camera. They click the shutter. A photograph was taken. We are looking at the real world. But, and here's the big but, what is it exactly we're looking at? There is the possibility that cannon balls were moved. Clearly someone moved these balls from one photograph to the other.
MORRISIt seems likely that bodies were moved in the Civil War photographs, but not withstanding these are still powerful pieces of evidence of war, of the places in which they were taken. We're lucky by the way to have them. I find it endlessly interesting that there have been suspicions raised about, you name it, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the famous kappa photograph of the falling soldier during the Spanish Civil War and on and on and on and on. All these controversies, what do they do actually? They bring us deeper and deeper into history. I would argue that they're a good thing because they're asking us to examine more closely the question of what really happened.
KNOYWell, it's been really nice to talk to you, Errol Morris. It's been a lot of fun. And I...
MORRISThank you for having me. It's been terrific.
KNOYI learned a lot from the book. And we were able to post a couple pictures from the book at our website, again, drshow.org. Errol Morris, thanks for being here.
MORRISThank you for having me. This has been terrific.
KNOYErrol Morris, author of the new book "Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography." I'm Laura Knoy sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Lisa Dunn and Nikki Jecks. The engineer is Erin Stamper. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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