The Photography Book

Above: Peter Silverton by Rankin

There really haven’t been many; not ones that have counted for much, anyway. There has, of course, been any number of good, important, significant books of photography. Just look at Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: A History (volumes one and two), and count all those glorious, revolutionary private projects, obsessions and inadvertently original and triumphant hack collations. They keep coming too. A couple of examples from this year: Bruce Davidson’s Subway – a reissue whose time has come – and Anouk Kruithof’s Happy Birthday to You; perhaps the most striking and moving of the current wave of cheap, handcrafted, small-run, artworld-driven photobooks emerging from mainland Europe.

But significant books about photography? No, there are scant few of those; surprisingly few, in truth, given that the game has been in play since 1838, or so. Nor has the list changed much for a good many years. There is now a new addition to that list, though: Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) by Errol Morris who, till now, has been best known – and this is an important, significant point – as a filmmaker. First that list, though: that tiny band of books that the new Morris is joining? I make it four in all, with a couple on the bench. I don’t of course, necessarily agree with what is written in all of all these books; or even, in some cases, think that what they have to say is smart, or even coherent. But they are all significant. They have changed the way we look at photographs; the way we think and talk about them, too. Even, probably, the way they are taken.

I’ll take them in order of publication. In each case, I give some personal details about the author. Why? I’ll let you know soon enough. 1. Walter Benjamin’s Short History of Photography (1931): a German-Jewish-Parisian Marxist intellectual’s invitation to make sense of the trade’s early masters. He later committed suicide. 2. John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye (1966): a clear, generous-spirited and smart tour of the game, just as it barged into art museums, written by a trout-fishing, clarinet-playing, postman’s son from Wisconsin. A successful photographer, Szarkowski took over from Edward Steichen as Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). While he was writing this book, his two-year-old son died. 3. Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977): a bisexual New York Jewish intellectual’s elevation of Diane Arbus (and other observations on the game). The last part of Sontag’s life was spent with Vanity Fair photographer, Annie Leibovitz. 4. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980): a gay Parisian intellectual’s struggle to give logical structure to his emotional reaction to photographs – and a deeply personal love poem to his mother. He died in 1977, before it was published, from injuries sustained when he was knocked down by a laundry van after leaving a lunch party held by the then Socialist Party leader, François Mitterrand. On the bench? A book I enjoyed, like and admire: Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment (2005). One I didn’t enjoy or like, but think will have a major long-term impact (particularly in academia): Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008).

And now there is Errol Morris’s Believing is Seeing, which is enjoyable, arresting and intellectually rigorous. Pleasingly, it ignores all those books above; except Sontag’s, with which it takes issue over her judgment of Roger Fenton. In particular, it defends the pioneering photographer’s morality – robustly. Morris is big on morality and motive; something of an innovation in the often arid realm of photography criticism. I can’t say I didn’t have advance warning about how good and important this book would be. Sections of it had already appeared over the past year or so in the Opinionator section of (The New York Times online newspaper), where they stood out for their wit, originality and, well, bounce. Morris did something very simple; he looked at a photograph, or photographs. Then he did something not nearly so simple; he performed something like a forensic autopsy on them. It’s not the first time, of course, that Morris has made a major contribution to our understanding of the image; and of testimony and memory too.

His 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line, is the founding moment of modern documentary. Though building on the past – the work of Anthony Wall’s Arena unit, most obviously – it did revolutionise documentary in at least three ways. It found a way to make reconstruction valid, rather than lurid. It made it okay for a serious documentary to be enraptured by its own capacity for image-making – colour, narrative, framing; and with its Philip Glass soundtrack, it gave – or perhaps regave – music its own, vital role to play in documentary; its own voice in the room. That Morris’s film was, in good part, paid for by the Chubb lock people, only adds to its delight.

That it is now a staple of A-level Film Studies should not detract from its wondrousness and significance. Without The Thin Blue Line, documentary-making would still be the backwater it was in the 1970s and 1980s, rather than the marquee star it now is. Simply, no Errol Morris, no Senna, Touching the Void or Waltz with Bashir. And, of course, The Thin Blue Line freed an innocent man; even if he did, in turn, go on to pursue Morris through the courts, unsuccessfully.

Believing is Seeing does something not dissimilar with photographs. An example (just one): a defining image of the Iraq… war? adventure? chaos? tragedy? crime? misdemeanour? It’s the picture of Sabrina Harman, a Specialist in the 372nd Military Police Battalion, at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003, kneeling by an Iraqi corpse, grinning widely and giving a green-gloved thumps up. The young – lesbian – soldier is glorying over a death she has just caused, right? Wrong. Via various techniques, with roots in his history as a documentary maker, and prehistory as a private investigator, Morris dissects the image’s timeline using the exchangeable image file format (Exif) data encoded in every digital photograph, as well as Harman’s facial expression (using University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) psychology professor Paul Ekman’s elaboration of the emotional significance of our orbicularis oculi, pars lateralis muscle).

He establishes two things: Harman did not kill that man and she is not smiling with pleasure. The orbicularis oculi is an involuntary muscle and its activation is the only reliable clue as to whether a smile is genuine or not. Sabrina Harman is doing what most people do when faced with a camera. She’s saying cheese – that great lie of photography. As Morris says, believing is seeing. Which is why I have given personal details about those authors; they have shaped your view of the books, inevitably. And now I’ll tell you something else – I made an error. John Szarkowski’s son didn’t die while he was writing that book. It was while he was writing Looking at Photographs (1974). Believing is seeing: the mysteries of photography – and documentary films.

© Peter Silverton 2012