Posing photos

I was struck by Errol Morris’s “The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock.” In his argument that the controversies surrounding the FSA photos were perhaps at times overblown and that all photography provides an amount of posing and framing, I found myself both persuaded and skeptical at the same time. I think Morris’s perspective on the issues becomes most clear in his discussion with Bill Ganzel. Ganzel argues that even if the photograph of the family fleeing a dust storm was staged, nobody could deny that it was dusty. Ganzel stated, “it portrays reality,” and Morris agreed. This along with the logic that photographers constantly edit their work by choosing which photos to print, how to crop them, how to frame the shot, etc. makes sense to me, but at the same time it demands that we must trust the photographer to intend to “portray reality.”[1] I do not think I’m ready to take that plunge, just like I do not, and most historians do not, wish to have to trust the word of other historians, so we read the footnotes.

I was worried I was getting too worked up in my pondering the issue when I remembered a controversy that perhaps demonstrates what is actually at stake more than FSA photographs. In 1995, a German travelling exhibition opened demonstrating the atrocities of the Wermacht, the Germany army, on the eastern front during World War II. Major controversy ensued as graphic photos displayed the atrocities institutionalized by the Wermacht. Moreover, many of the photographs came under fire. As it turned out, a very few of the photographs were not of atrocities at German hands, but Russian.  Certainly this is much more drastic than anything perpetrated by the FSA photographers, and it is certainly fundamentally different than placing a clock on a mantle. Nevertheless, there were lesser offences as well that came under similar fire. Other photos were cut into portions and displayed in different areas of the exhibition, which distorted certain events.

Under official review of the exhibition it was determined that “‘1. structural mistakes, 2. inaccurate and careless handling of material and 3′”, due to the way the exhibits were presented “‘too sweeping, suggestive statements.'”[2] The review, however, could not find any “‘counterfeits in the main question and thesis, ‘” Similar to Ganzel’s statement, it portrayed a reality if not technically so. Certainly this is an exaggerated example, but it seems to me to be a difference in degree rather than fundamentals. Focusing on what the photos represent rather than what the photos actually are can lead to these exaggerations, which is why Morris’s suggestions make me uneasy.

[1]Errol Morris, “The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock (part 7),” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/24/the-case-of-the-inappropriate-alarm-clock-part-7/#more-11563

[2] “Controversial Wehrmacht Exhibition Back on Show,” http://www.dw.de/controversial-wehrmacht-exhibition-back-on-show/a-338282

4 thoughts on “Posing photos”

  1. Hi Nathan –

    I agree that there is a large grey area between the photographer “portraying reality” and the final product. Even though the audience is basically forced to trust the photographer, as historians we have to be able to re-trace the photographer’s steps and ensure that he/she is accurately portraying reality. Your example of the photos of the Wermacht (or the Russians, as the case may be) demonstrate how important it is to be able to understand the process the photographer goes through when creating their photographs.


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  3. I too cannot get too worked up over Walker or Rothstein’s supposed transgressions when there are so many more egregious examples of history being knowingly falsified through the use of photography. I mentioned the post-mortem accusations against Robert Capa in my post, but the Soviets had a reputation for simply airbrushing party members who had fallen out of favor from official photographs.

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