Previous news story    Next news story

Errol Morris talks to The Guardian about truth in photography

By dpreview staff on Dec 28, 2011 at 17:44 GMT

British newspaper The Guardian has published a video interview with Oscar-winning documentary maker Errol Morris about the nature of truth in photography. In it he talks about whether photography can be honest or truthful, and wonders what's outside the frame. The video is illustrated with some examples taken from his book 'Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography' and discusses the power of 'iconic photographs' and the meanings they develop, divorced from context. (via PetaPixel)

Comments

Total comments: 50
Civil War Tamarin Monkey
By Civil War Tamarin Monkey (Jan 4, 2012)

I was incredibly excited to see Errol Morris' book last week. He has made many thought provoking films generating incredible depth in their study of truth. It seems that some of the commenters here are not familiar with him. I recommend looking up his movies The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line, and Gates of Heaven. His analysis of truth played a major role in obtaining a kind of justice for a particular individual (don't want to spoil any films). Additionally, he once conspired with Werner Herzog to dig-up Ed Gein's mother in an effort to see if reports that Ed Gein had dug-up his mother were true.

Anyway, I couldn't think of a better person to review this topic. If this particular video was not very convincing, that's too bad as the book is outstanding. I definitely recommend giving the subject as presented by Errol Morris a second look as his body of work warrants it, in my opinion.

1 upvote
Rage Joe
By Rage Joe (Jan 3, 2012)

Disapointed. Nothing new said here, just talk. Btw. I also hate all the susan sontag bs - like is was something extraordinary to read. Well to me it's not. She is mostly just boring, just like this Errol Morris fella here.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Jan 3, 2012)

All photographs are "true" if they make us look pretty, confirm our beliefs, aid our friends, discredit our foes, or flatter the client enough to say, "Hey, I like that," and earn a nice fee. Right?

There is no clear line between visual persuasion and outright humbug. Famous shots can be broadly "true" and yet be posed, rehearsed, or retouched. There is always an element of selection or composition that depends on the photographer's marching orders, tastes, or degree of access to important people or events.

There also cases where an ostensibly "true" photograph cannot hold sway or trump human perception. Consider sports events. Referees may be flawed, but you cannot let cameras veto or discredit every call the referees make. The veil of privacy also excludes most events from any nosy lenses anyway.

0 upvotes
rogerslade
By rogerslade (Jan 1, 2012)

The words "truth" and "Guardian" sit very uncomfortably together.

0 upvotes
FsK
By FsK (Jan 5, 2012)

why?

0 upvotes
Alan2dpreview
By Alan2dpreview (Jan 1, 2012)

One other point. Often the picture "tells the truth" but the caption created by the newspaper publisher lies. I'm sure we all have sen the polar bear drifting on the ice flow with the comment,"Global warming is destroying the polar bear habitat." Well, leaving that argument to the side, polar bears often float on ice flows. It has nothing to do with global warming per se. But the publisher used the picture for propaganda purposes distorting what the "real" picture really meant.

0 upvotes
Alan2dpreview
By Alan2dpreview (Jan 1, 2012)

They could have shown the actual iconic picture of the flag raising rather than the get together afterwards. That in itself distorts his point.

http://www.iwojima.com/raising/lflaga2.gif original

http://www.yourememberthat.com/files/cfa297bf9ed281bd.jpg cropped iconic version.

The cropped iconic version is better balanced artistically getting rid of the negative space on the left and top and following the "rule" of thirds. However, I don't think the truth was changed. It is a great and patriotic picture though, a lot better than the shameful Abu Ghraib shots. On the other hand, the Photographer supposedly set this shot up with a second flag raising ceremony so there are still arguments as to whether this was staged to get a better photo.

0 upvotes
eagle2a
By eagle2a (Dec 31, 2011)

Excellent piece. How refreshing to hear the observations of someone who really seems to know what they're talking about.

Thank you for posting the link.

Don

0 upvotes
Lyteskrybe
By Lyteskrybe (Dec 31, 2011)

It is interesting and relevant. Although a photograph by its very nature decontextualizes, and, granted, it is merely one frame, one pixel, extracted from the composite of existence, it is nonetheless important to me particularly from a naturalistic or journalistic perspective that it not be posed, that it be a mere recording. Otherwise, it becomes propagandist. Due to my admiration and quest for truth in general, when photographing nature I try to resist the temptation to pose or stage my photos by, for example, adding a leaf here or removing a stick there. Photography as a means of artistic expression, on the other hand, is unlimited in the means by which it is brought to fruition. And visual parables too can be ways of conveying truth. Dissimulation is of course a part of a predator and prey world in nature and human ventures. Yet we humans are capable of grasping the value of Truth and are always the better for it when we try to serve it in photography or elsewhere.

0 upvotes
LightOnSurface
By LightOnSurface (Dec 31, 2011)

Interesting. I don't believe he actually defined "truth." Leaving that term undefined muddies the discussion. In the words of Robin Williams, "Reality. What a concept." Perceptual scientists have told us for years that senses are filtered by emotional states, other sensory cues, what we are mentally prepared to understand. There may be a hard and fast thing that is reality. We are seldom in direct touch with it. Now if the subject is intentionally manipulated presentation of physical events, the conversation becomes something entirely different. Even then, the produced image may be "real"-- again, depending on the definition of the first term.

0 upvotes
EduardoJB
By EduardoJB (Dec 31, 2011)

Agree. "truth" and "real" are not necessarily synonyms. Maybe "reality" can be tested more objectively in the Physics sense, but "truth" can't. I think the very definition of Photography has to include the "real" in it, even if it's distorted, manipulated, etc. because every photograph stems from existing objects and subjects. If not, it would be another type of visual art (painting, etc). But the "truth" is another thing altogether.

0 upvotes
andy forey
By andy forey (Dec 31, 2011)

I can see the attention span of other doesnt go further than 3 seconds on an image. I agree with his words and the idea of how and why a photograph was created .. i think photographers obviously manipulate the picture either with direction or with croping and post production. and with any story a photograph has more behind it than just the image as there is always more than one point of view there is always more to a photograph.

0 upvotes
ZAnton
By ZAnton (Dec 31, 2011)

bla bla about nothing

0 upvotes
EduardoJB
By EduardoJB (Dec 31, 2011)

Yeah, nothing really new here, although I prefer not to be disrespectful. In fact, the whole issue about the "truth" is already a very old discussion theme with no definite answer, unless we all agree that there's no such thing.

0 upvotes
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Jan 3, 2012)

No forest, only trees (SLR lens talk), right? The trick is to crop out all the big stuff and simply pixel peep.

0 upvotes
Alternative Energy Photography

This 8 and a half minutes was more painful than having new fillings at the dentist. I had a hard time following him because of all the stops and starts. He wandered all over the map as if he were an unguided missle.

The Guardian should know by now that most people are terrible on camera and/or on microphone and not all video is conducive to the point. A good interviewer would have kept him on track and a good editor would have removed about 6 minutes of empty content.

And that's why I crop my photos. I crop before I take the picture, I crop again in post.

Sometimes I crop distracting elements. Other times, I crop DISTRACTING EMPTY SPACE. As I would have done in this video. Or better yet, I might have made the call to merely provide a transcript and four of the A/B photos.

0 upvotes
Zvonimir Tosic
By Zvonimir Tosic (Dec 31, 2011)

Photography is a form of art, or, a language of art. To paraphrase Picasso, art uses lies to tell some form of truth. Even if photography tries to tell us truth about about lies of life, or if it blatantly tries to lie, there's some truth to the intention and act behind the each.

0 upvotes
iaredatsun
By iaredatsun (Dec 30, 2011)

I guess there might still be one or two people out there who believe in the Photograph/Truth equation. I mean the ones who haven't been ruthlessly exposed to semiotics and the teachings of Ronald 'Panzani' Barthes at elementary school. But this should really help flush out those remaining medieval era Cartier Bresson-loving fundamentals from their spider holes. Nice one Chris. Still walking the thin black and white line.

0 upvotes
Martin_Kay
By Martin_Kay (Dec 30, 2011)

Yes, I agree with this guy. Photographs can lack context by the possibility of exclusion and by selectivity in framing- being selective when you release the shutter. Obviously scenes can be set up and obviously digitally manipulated. In any case one photograph is a tiny slice of a perception which, could change, in a split second or two.

0 upvotes
Decoboy
By Decoboy (Dec 30, 2011)

I disagree with the first section - i.e. the cannonballs, elephant etc.

As I hear it - he is saying posing and cropping are the same thing - they ARE NOT. Same for framing and posing, the elephant gimmick is just silly, what about what was behind the camera, or maybe on the next continent/planet??
Classic example of twisted logic - to excuse straight out fraudulent activity by photographers.

There is a BIG difference between a deliberate choice of framing/cropping and a deliberate physical interference in what is in the actual scene displayed - be it by 'posing' cannonballs, or deleting/inserting objects afterwards.

Changing objects, faking scenes, passing off re-enactments as the original is cheating and fraud and no amount of 'nothing is real' or "all pictures lie" blather excuses a cheater.
So a photo (i.e. a chosen field of view) can't tell the whole story - so how exactly does that make cheating and faking scenes OK?

Shame on him for suggesting they are the same.

Comment edited 6 minutes after posting
4 upvotes
EduardoJB
By EduardoJB (Dec 30, 2011)

I don't think he's saying it's OK or not. All he's saying is that no photograph can be regarded as part of a "truth". And I agree. What I don't agree with is that he says that language can be more "truthful" (Did I understand correctly?). In fact, I'm a bit worried that today for photograph to be considered "contemporary art", it has to NOT be the truth. Art critics, owners of galleries and museums seem to prefer "conceptual", posed, super post-processsed, etc, photographs. In this regard, what he says makes sense, even when a photo is PART of a real scene, we can't know the whole truth, so, why are these types of photos considered different than those that are manipulated-fabricated-whatever?

0 upvotes
FsK
By FsK (Jan 5, 2012)

Really. Remember Firdos square?

http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article2838.htm

I'm not sure he said cheating and faking scenes was ok. He just pointed out that scene selection can be just as serious.

0 upvotes
et47
By et47 (Dec 30, 2011)

Some thirty years ago, Susan Sontang wrote something about photography, nothing new under the sun...

2 upvotes
nick_wolfwood
By nick_wolfwood (Dec 30, 2011)

"If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall."

-- Indiana Jones

2 upvotes
OBI656
By OBI656 (Dec 29, 2011)

I thing, that any visual media could be misleading if author and creator of that art work wants too ... It could be painting, photography and of course movie picture as well. I would say movie picture specialy !!!

On the other hand photography can be realistic as naked eye .

1 upvote
winparkman
By winparkman (Dec 29, 2011)

At first, I felt skeptical about what Morris was saying. But as the interview progressed, I understood what he was trying to say. I think one of the best pieces of advice about photography I received was that all photos lie. In this video, Morris is saying exactly that. What good photos do is touch us emotionally. That is good but we should not let our emotional response turn the photo into truth.

4 upvotes
Mr Gurf
By Mr Gurf (Dec 29, 2011)

...and to add even more context to this matter, bear in mind that this is published by none other than The Guardian, a paper best known by its tremendously biased accounts of stories, unbalanced views, and politically charged agenda.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this video, much to the contrary. But in any case, beware!

0 upvotes
Ernest D-Alford
By Ernest D-Alford (Dec 29, 2011)

How thoroughly absurd! If anyone is inclined to accept your assessment, a brief look at the newspaper should show how wrong you are -- and wonder why.

0 upvotes
Lea5
By Lea5 (Dec 29, 2011)

Your assessment would be true if you talk about the SUN or Daily-Mail. The Guardian is most of the time very correct.

0 upvotes
Mr Gurf
By Mr Gurf (Dec 30, 2011)

Do you call THIS correct or balanced? It's more like hate-speech to me:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/19/israeli-lives-more-important-palestinian

Or for more context:
http://honestreporting.com/a-year-of-dishonest-reporting-why-the-guardian-won/

Check your sources, people. The impression of seriousness you may get is likely betraying you.

0 upvotes
FsK
By FsK (Jan 5, 2012)

Seriously, you provide a link to a propaganda website and a selection of Guardian articles on Israel-Palestine to accuse the Guardian of being unbalanced?

You're comments do however, nicely reflect the thought or Morris on the nature of 'truth'. The same image, article or event can have very different meanings depending on who views them.

1 upvote
lutherfan
By lutherfan (Dec 29, 2011)

Excellent discourse. As much as we would like to think photojournalism is important (and it is), there are significant problems and consequences with every shot. Shooter and viewer beware!

2 upvotes
FafneTheDragon
By FafneTheDragon (Dec 29, 2011)

Here in Sweden have we have had or first encounter of a cheating photographer, more correctly a wildlife photographer.
there are not many here that earns there money by selling photos and even fewer by selling photos of wildlife.
The cheater took random pictures of Lynx, from the web and photo shopped them in his own backgrounds of Scandinavian nature.
Writing in details about encounters with Lynx and how he, always only took one photo at exact the right time on these meeting with Lynxes.

A sad thing was that there was like a cult around this photographer, with people aggressively argued against any word of suspicion of "photos" being manipulated.
Including Canadian lynxes in europe and lynxes in winter fur, in the high of summer.

1 upvote
tommy leong
By tommy leong (Dec 29, 2011)

thought he had some examples to show us...
The way he talks, it sound like he on the verge of death...
so slow and drawn out...

1 upvote
absentaneous
By absentaneous (Dec 29, 2011)

he showed some examples. if that was not enough for you then you need to buy his book.

2 upvotes
Grant
By Grant (Dec 29, 2011)

He certainly doesn't look healthy. As for his opinions....??? I agree with the rubbish comment. Sort of Lewis Carroll "JABBERWOCKYish"".

Comment edited 14 minutes after posting
1 upvote
absentaneous
By absentaneous (Dec 29, 2011)

I would really like to hear an argument from those who say his words are just rubbish. I am really curious about what makes people say that.

1 upvote
Grant
By Grant (Dec 31, 2011)

See Rupert's comment below...:-)

0 upvotes
Rupert Bottomsworth
By Rupert Bottomsworth (Dec 29, 2011)

What a load of rubbish.

2 upvotes
Nordstjernen
By Nordstjernen (Dec 30, 2011)

And your arguments are ... ?

0 upvotes
Rupert Bottomsworth
By Rupert Bottomsworth (Dec 31, 2011)

I don't need one :D

0 upvotes
rambler35
By rambler35 (Dec 29, 2011)

Thoughtful video.

It could be argued that almost all photos (inc. documentary) are SELECTED versions of reality.

Firstly, the photographer chooses to record the event, selects the viewpoint, perspective, focus of attention, framing (with the inclusion/exclusion that might imply), and selects the instant in time for that "snapshot". With the best will in the World to be objective, any two photographers at the same scene/event might come up with photos which could convey different meanings or messages to the viewer. The choice of whether to display the picture in colour or mono can also further modify a picture's mood .... and so on ..... before we even reach the question of Photoshop manipulation.

Comment edited 3 times, last edit 13 minutes after posting
2 upvotes
roy5051
By roy5051 (Dec 28, 2011)

Very interesting perspective on "the photograph" - he talks a lot of sense

1 upvote
Doug
By Doug (Dec 28, 2011)

If only all shots were photos. No need for artillery.

2 upvotes
washyshots
By washyshots (Dec 28, 2011)

Finally, some real photographic discourse, although, I must say that, as a topic 'photographic truth' has been hammered to death by the 'other' type of photographic practitioner.

1 upvote
tex
By tex (Dec 28, 2011)

Wow! 4 intelligent comments right off the bat. I'm surprised and positively impressed. Perhaps photography enthusiasts are in fact finally coming to understand what the rest of arts practitioners and viewers have understood from the get-go.

1 upvote
erichK
By erichK (Dec 28, 2011)

This video clip is interesting and relevant, except that the first example, the canon balls on the road, seems rather inane. Wouldn't they have been cleared *from* the road to allow it to be used? And also, by what perverse feat of reverse artillery marksmanship and chance, could such a rain of cannonballs not have resulted in some landing on the road during barrages?

There are many better examples that he could have used, such as the iconic Iwo Jima image, above.

1 upvote
DougRight
By DougRight (Dec 28, 2011)

As photographers, we probably share the same view that a photograph creates a reality, but does not document one. I'll appreciate what a photograph has to say, but I have no doubt that it has been altered (by framing and photoshop) to say what it does.

Comment edited 34 seconds after posting
7 upvotes
absentaneous
By absentaneous (Dec 28, 2011)

I perfectly agree with his ideas. to me photography is as real or unreal as painting or anything else in which humans see meaning.

1 upvote
aardvark7
By aardvark7 (Dec 28, 2011)

To a large degree, all truth is about subjective perception.
Photography is no different, but man will always discuss the nature of such truths, as it affects how we interact with our world, our life and our very existence.

1 upvote
Total comments: 50