Artwalk: Truth and Photography

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I’m Errol Morris, a filmmaker and writer. I want to take you on a walk through the photographs on exhibit in this museum because I love photographs. I find them mysterious. I like being engaged by that question: what in hell am I looking at it? I’d like you to meet me in one of the photo galleries so we can engage in a discussion.


Hang on. Sorry to interrupt. Before you go with Errol, I just want to explain that this artwalk will be a little different than the others. Photographs are light sensitive, so we can’t leave them up for very long. We swap them out all the time to preserve them. So that means Errol isn’t going to be taking you to look at specific photographs. He’s going to ask you to look for general types of pictures, like a portrait or a landscape. You’ll find your own way through the galleries and choose which pictures to stop and look more closely at. So feel free to wander in whatever order you choose. Okay. I’ll hand you back to Errol now. The photography galleries are on the third floor. You can start at any of the photography exhibits on three.


By the way, there’s a lot of people here, and we’re hoping you can try to be polite for a change. If you want to start, I can start immediately. You’re walking through an exhibit of photographs. Step back in front of every photograph and ask a simple question: what am I looking at? What does it mean? A photograph isn’t obvious. In fact, it’s the opposite of obvious. Looking at a photograph is the beginning of an investigation, not the end of it. I’m asking you to look at photography in a different way. You know, I don’t want to give people orders here, but find a portrait of somebody. Could be a portrait of somebody you know, someone that you’ve read about, a historical figure who’s famous for one reason or another. And think about it. Who is this person? Can I know who this person is from looking at his photograph?


My father died when I was two months shy of my third birthday. I have no memory of him at all. But in the house where I grew up, there were pictures of him. I had heard all of these stories about my father, and I would look at the pictures and I was wondering what kind of man was my father? What was my relationship to him when I was a little boy? They left me with this feeling of something being deeply unresolved, deeply elusive. There you have this picture of someone right before you. They seem almost as if they’re there and yet distant, removed. Probably is a good part of my obsession with photography, the connection and disconnection. Photographs are puzzles. You should be puzzled by that question: what am I looking at and why?


Hey, you’ve spent enough time here in this gallery. I think you should move on. Go find a photograph that depicts history. Perhaps it means a photograph that’s 100 years or more old. A photograph of a historical event that we’re all familiar with. Every photograph, every photograph provides evidence of history of some kind or another. And then our task is to figure out what its connection is to the world around it. Many, many, many, many questions. The minute somebody picks up a camera to take a picture, we lose the context around that image.


When I first started making documentary films, you were presented with a set of rules about how these films should be made. You should use available light, you shouldn’t move anything that you photographed. You should photograph things the way they are, not the way you might wish them to be. And I broke all of those rules in almost every film that I’ve made. A friend of mine once said, “You may be a fly on the wall, but you’re a five-hundred-pound fly on the wall. I consider it to be nonsense talk that if you obey these rules, that somehow truth pops out, and if there’s nothing manipulated about the image, then somehow it’s truthful. But isn’t truth something that is part of language, not of visual images? What are you really talking about when you ask the question: is a photograph true? What sense does that make? I would submit that it makes no sense. None!


In the New York Times, I am reading about Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, an iconic representation of American heroism during the Second World War. And yet, people started almost at once to question. I always worry about this word, but I’ll use it, I’ll risk using it here. They worried about the authenticity of the photograph, whether it was posed, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Why? Because it was the second flag raised on Mount Suribachi. There was a previous flag raised that Joe Rosenthal photographed. He’s coming back down the mountain and another party is coming up with a bigger flag. One of the commanders wants a flag everybody can clearly see. That flag is too small. Let’s put up a bigger flag. And so they put up the bigger flag. And Joe Rosenthal photographs that as well. Is it posed? Is it a fraud? I don’t think any of these questions are illegitimate. It’s interesting.


Hey, how about going to the next room? Look around, try to find a landscape, and you think, well, that’s clearly not posed and couldn’t possibly be posed. The more and more you think about the questions, the clearer it becomes that all photographs are posed. Posed in the sense that the photographer made choices about what to include or exclude from the frame. I sometimes describe photographs that someone is tearing. I like the word tearing. They’re tearing a swatch out of reality, and all that’s left is that frame and its contents. Maybe in every photograph ever taken, there is an Indian elephant just outside the frame. In fact, someone should walk around and look at the photographs on exhibit in this museum and just sort of imagine the photograph was taken and there was an extremely large elephant just to the left. Can’t see it! It’s not in the photograph, but just outside the frame. Would you look at the photographs differently as a result? I hope this isn’t too ridiculous for you.


Look at a photograph that has some horrific violence that’s depicted in it, whether it’s the picture from the Holocaust, whether it’s a picture of a lynching. As usual, look at the photograph and think of what it means. Why are you repelled by it or drawn in by it? What was the world in which this photograph was taken? I made a movie about the infamous photographs taken at Abu Ghraib. The hooded man on a box with wires has become the iconic photograph of the Iraq War. And there is this assumption that the person who took the photograph is responsible, and maybe in some abstract sense they are. But I set myself the task of taking these photographs that everybody had seen and telling a story about the context. I came to know the people who had taken the photographs. Many of the worst photographs were actually documentary photographs. The photographer would take these photographs because she was appalled about what she was seeing. But we can’t know any of that just simply by looking and assuming that what we see is obvious.

One of the things that’s always fascinated me is how a caption can change the meaning of a photograph, radically. Go out there, find a photograph that has a caption, and then imagine how you would look at that photograph if you had never seen the caption, or say, someone came and changed it. You know, the photographer takes this picture of a man and, you know, the caption says, “That’s a picture of my father, who I truly loved.” And the caption is taken away and replaced with, “This is a picture of the young Adolf Hitler.” See if that doesn’t change how you react to the image. What makes it true or false is the combination of the sentence and the picture, not the picture alone.


Here’s my point. I hope I have a point here. There’s always a worry. My point is that the photograph asks us to look more deeply, more keenly. There is one very, very famous photograph, Gardener’s photograph of Lincoln, I find utterly amazing. Every time I look at it because I feel Lincoln there sitting in front of the camera. Well, a lot of people feel almost as though they know him. And those Gardener photographs are, in part, responsible. He’s there! He’s there and he’s not there!


Both my father and Lincoln are dead, and I’m never, ever going to meet them. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever. And I think there’s something of a sadness, a feeling of loss in many photographs, because we know we’re looking at a lost world. A photograph is tantalizing because it makes us, for a moment, think it could come back or has come back, that time is reversible. Photography could never succeed without our capacity to dream. It begs for acts of imagination. But don’t listen to me. I have a tendency to prattle on. Just look at the photographs, that’s what you’re here for! Thank you so much.


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This tour can be taken anywhere, but we recommend taking it in the Floor 3 Photography Galleries.

Filmmaker Errol Morris has spent decades making award-winning documentaries. In this Artwalk, Morris will challenge you to wander through SFMOMA ’s photography galleries asking questions. What’s inside the frame? What’s left out? As Morris says, “Looking at a photograph is the beginning of an investigation, not the end of it.”