Mar. 13 2015: Errol Morris and The Case of the Inappropriate Clock

Until I took this class I only knew of Errol Morris as one of our most important documentary filmmakers. This article and the previous one on the persuasiveness of one kind of typeface over another were fascinating inquiries into the nature of art and how easy it is to manipulate the viewers’ response.

The 7-part Case of the Inappropriate Clock begins with three shots of the skull of a steer each labeled Art, Photo Journalism and Propaganda. The trick is that they are all the same photograph. Lev Kuleshov actually did this experiment on film using the same shot of actor Ivan Mozzhukhin reacting to a beautiful woman, a bowl of soup and a dead baby in a coffin. Viewers perceived that the actor was registering lust, hunger and sorrow, when in fact the actor’s close-ups were the exact same shot. Morris and Kuleshov’s points are that we bring different interpretations to an image based on how it is juxtaposed, or in Morris’ case, labeled.

The story of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers and their work documenting Dust Bowl of the 1930s is fascinating. FDR’s opponents blasted their work as political propaganda. When novice photographer Arthur Rothstein openly admitted moving a cow’s skull ten feet to create a better composition for a shot of the North Dakota dust plains, it became a national mini-scandal. Rothstein was accused of carrying the skull in his suitcase to demonstrate the severity of the drought, thus propping up FDR’s argument for the New Deal. Apparently yesterday’s Dust Bowl deniers were the intellectual ancestors of today’s climate change deniers. Rothstein, who was only 21 at the time of his indiscretion, would have to answer for it for the duration of his life.

The heart of Morris’ piece concerns a famous series of photographs by Walker Evans. Writer James Agee and Evans teamed up to create a word-and-picture portrait of the living conditions of an Alabama cotton tenant family by the name of Gudger. Agee wrote exhaustive prose listing the contents of the Gudger cabin as if it were a crime scene, which ultimately evolved into his greatest work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. While they were not in the cabin at the same time, Evans’ photographs differ in significant ways from Agee’s description. Of most interest to Morris and researcher/historian James Curtis, was the presence of a travel alarm clock dead center on the Gudger mantlepiece. It is not listed by the observant Agee and Curtis suspects that Evans placed his own clock there to give to composition a central point of focus. There is also circumstantial evidence that Evans moved the cabin’s furniture around to create better compositions.

The heart of the matter are ethical issues surrounding the photo-journalist’s art. Is his role to simply record reality without altering it in the slightest? Or is part of his job to highlight the greater truth of a situation even if that means manipulating some inanimate objects? In my opinion, as soon as a photographer brings a camera into a setting, he or she is making a series of choices. These involve camera placement, camera height, lighting and a whole host of artistic choices. If the photographer’s lens is open, the room would appear flooded with light. Closed would give an appearance of gloom and darkness. A skewed composition might convey a life out of balance. A formal composition could convey dignity. Since the mere presence of a camera and tripod is altering the reality of a setting, moving a few pieces of furniture should not be considered an ethical sin.

While not addressed in the Morris article, war photographer Robert Capa has come under fire in recent years for allegedly faking the death of a soldier during the Spanish Civil War. The photograph, called Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, is justly considered one of the greatest war photographs ever taken. The accusation of fraud is circumstantial and I will not rehash the evidence here. But if true, it would be an unforgivable breach of ethics and a betrayal of Capa’s audience’s trust. One can argue that there is little moral difference between arranging a piece of furniture and staging a fake death, but I believe that it makes all the difference in the world. Evans did not construct a cabin out of balsa wood and props. The cabin was there, clock or no clock. If the accusation is true, Capa artificially staged a death that did not happen. While he undoubtedly witnessed many actual deaths, staging one solely for his camera is a lie. Evans adjusted reality. Capa (perhaps) manufactured a fiction.

My comments on classmates’ posts here.

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