Power Update — No Classes Tuesday

This is a message I sent this afternoon to the Wesleyan community. We will be sure to announce tomorrow before noon whether classes resume on Wednesday. Students should also know that there is a phone bank in 116 Science Center for anyone who wants to make a brief long distance call. Stay tuned for further updates.


Dear friends,

Although we are still hopeful that our own generators will be able to bring power back to parts of the central campus, the latest update from Connecticut Light and Power is disappointing. Given this latest news, we will cancel classes tomorrow, Tuesday.  Only essential personnel should report to campus.

Recognizing that many students and faculty are away from campus, we will let everyone know by noon tomorrow whether classes resume on Wednesday. Also, we expect faculty to be flexible with student assignments, and that there will be a collective effort to figure out the best ways to complete the work of the semester.

Food will be available for students who remain on campus, and the Science Library will remain open as a shelter. We will provide updates regarding the situation on campus and in the Middletown area as they are available.

I appreciate that this has been a frustrating experience for members of the Wesleyan community eager for information and reassurance (and heat!). We will continue to share information as we get it and strive to resume educational activities as soon as it is prudent to do so.

Power Update

The following was sent to students, faculty, staff and parents via email. On campus, we circulated the information with flyers. We will be sending another update this evening.

October 31, 2011

Dear friends,

As you probably know, the weekend’s snowstorm has wreaked havoc with many
of the power systems of the region. In particular, the Connecticut Light
and Power electrical grid has sustained unprecedented damage, and the
Middletown area has been without electricity since Sunday afternoon. This
has left Wesleyan without power in the central campus area for the first
time in memory. We have backup systems for emergency lighting and for our
servers, which have functioned properly. Medical services are available
at Middlesex Hospital, and Public Safety is available to any students in
need of assistance. We have provided a shelter area at the Science
Library and have been serving meals at the Usdan University Center.
Sandwiches will be available at Usdan today from 2 to 4 pm, and we will
provide further information about meals pending restoration of power.

We are working with local officials and our own engineers and are hopeful
that power will be restored to the central campus area sometime this
evening. This will happen in stages, and there likely will be
interruptions — a normal part of the process. Supplying electricity to
the wood frame houses and the surrounding area will take longer, and we
will send information in this regard (including places on campus where
students may stay) in the next 24 hours.

We do anticipate that classes will be held Tuesday.

The aftermath of the storm has been challenging, and I am grateful to the
staff, faculty and students who are all pulling together.

No Power But Plenty of Spirit

Imagine my surprise last night when my plane from Beijing touched down at JFK and I turned on my phone. Lots of messages about the weather, and then the big surprise: Middletown was without power, and even though our core of campus has underground cables feeding the buildings, Wesleyan, too, was dark. It was a cold night, but students could camp out in the warm science library or just hunker down together in the residence halls. Most chose the latter option, and, in good Wes spirit, took the blackout in stride. It’s a beautiful, brisk morning, and the students are safe and sound. We are serving a continental breakfast at 9 am this morning, and I look forward to seeing folks at Usdan.

Classes are cancelled today, and we will be letting students know more about campus services on an ongoing basis.

In a few hours we will know more about the power situation for the next 24 hours. I will be sending out an official communication in the early afternoon, and I will use this blog for any interim reports.

UPDATE: 9:40 am

Just came back from Usdan University Center, where a line of students were grabbing a healthy breakfast.

Breakfast at Usdan

Tree crews are out cleaning up the campus. Tough year for trees!

Yogurt, Fruit and Coffee Cake to Provide Energy for a Cold Morning
Chilly But Beautiful

As temperatures climb (we expect it to reach the 50s today), and students find food and camaraderie, we will be getting back to normal. A more official power report to come in a few hours.


Traveling with the Liberal Arts Message

I’ve been on the road for the last several days, visiting the University of California at Berkeley’s Townsend Humanities Center to give two lectures.



The first had to do with the long tradition of liberal arts education in the United States, and how we must defend and reinvigorate that tradition today. The second was based on my my scholarly work on photography and critical theory, with particular attention to how one might face pedagogical challenges in contexts in which affect is running very high. These were filmed, so they should be on the web soon.

I had the opportunity to visit the California College of the Arts campus in San Francisco. It’s a high energy place, and I was so pleased to feel the vibrancy of the work on architecture, design, and art that I saw displayed.

CCA in San Francisco

I visited with some alumni while in the Bay Area, and several Wes folks came out to UC to hear the talks. It was great to see them!

I am now in Bejing to participate in a colloquium on Tradition co-sponsored by Wesleyan and the Social Science in China Press.

Our philosophy of history journal History and Theory has spearheaded this joint program, with great leadership from Professors Steve Angle and Ethan Kleinberg. It’s my first trip to China, and though it will be very short, I’m looking forward to building ongoing relationships with our colleagues here. I’m also giving a lecture at Beijing Normal University on why liberal arts matter and will get together with alumni before heading home. I have to be ready for class on Monday!

Open Access to Knowledge

I recently signed the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. The Declaration was initiated in 2003 by the Max Planck Society in Munich, Germany, to support the open dissemination of knowledge throughout the scholarly community.  Over 300 colleges and universities have signed the Declaration since then, and Wesleyan is one of a small but distinguished group of U.S. institutions to do so.

The impetus behind the open access movement comes from the opportunities afforded by the Internet for the dissemination of scholarly publications and from the severe challenge posed by the soaring prices for many academic journals. We want to encourage access to the latest research. At Wesleyan, we have used WesScholar as a vehicle for sharing the work of our faculty. Signing the Berlin Declaration is another step for encouraging increased access to advanced research.

Now that Wesleyan has declared its support for open access to scholarship, what do we do next?  One step that has been taken by the faculties of Harvard, MIT, Bucknell, Oberlin College and others is to pass a formal resolution to publish in open access journals, or journals that permit open access to articles via an institutional repository.  Because of the complex issues surrounding academic publishing as well as promotion and tenure practices, these resolutions were preceded by thorough on-campus discussions of the issues and how they might be addressed to the satisfaction of faculty members at all stages in their careers.  The week of Oct. 24-30 is Open Access Week, a perfect time to begin this conversation at Wesleyan.  Pat Tully, University Librarian, will post on her blog a series of entries about open access issues, which can be used as the basis for a series of campus discussions this year led by faculty, students and anyone interested in making scholarship more accessible.

Soccer Success

The men’s soccer team made a much anticipated visit to Amherst yesterday. The Lord Jeffs were ranked 4th in the country, and the Cardinals 9th. Both teams are undefeated for the season and have been playing very well. We thought it would be a closely fought match, and in fact it ended with a 0-0 tie, even after two overtimes. Adam Purdy ’13, Wesleyan’s record setting goaltender, came away with an awesome performance for his 10th shutout of the year. Since Amherst and Williams fought to a tie earlier in the year, and Wes won its game against Williams, this gives us the Little Three Championship for the first time since 1992. Congratulations to Coach Wheeler and the entire team! Their last game is at home vs. Trinity on Oct 26 at 3 pm. I will be traveling for Wesleyan that day, but I hope we get lots of students there to cheer on the squad.

Can’t write about soccer without mentioning Laura Kurash ’13, who has been tearing up the field for the Cardinals. Laura has 13 goals for the season, which is 5 more than the rest of the team combined!! The Cardinal women are also playing Trinity on Oct 25. Come cheer them on, or check out the webcast!

Occupy Wall Street and Education

Students have asked me about how I feel about the protests going on under the banner of Occupy Wall Street. I know several who have been participating in New York, and others who plan to join in during the fall break just about to begin.  Today I posted the following piece on the Huffington Post.


The Occupy Wall Street protests have become an important topic on college campuses. At Wesleyan, some of our students have joined the group in Zuccotti Park in New York, and others have found a variety of ways of expressing their support. Given the mainstream media’s treatment of the movement, it’s easy to mock the lack of clear policy initiatives or to roll one’s eyes at the absence of leaders to express a neat list of demands. But in talking with students and reading some of the statements from the Occupy Wall Street participants, it seems to me that we get a pretty clear picture of their discontent. Like many Americans, they are revolted by how huge infusions of money are corrupting our political system. And, they are aghast at the trajectory of increasing inequality.

There is plenty to protest. There is no question that our politicians now spend enormous amounts of time raising money; we all get the robocalls and the junk mail to prove it. And there is little doubt that elected officials make decisions about particular legislation or policy initiatives while considering how those decisions will affect the willingness of their donors to contribute. At least in this way, money is eating away at our increasingly dysfunctional political system. This is not something that other representative democracies accept as a necessary part of politics. We can try to show how the money flows – that’s been one of the tasks of the Wesleyan Media Project – but we don’t stem the tide.

Meanwhile, economic inequality in the country is accelerating in frightening ways. Here are three representative facts from Nicholas Kristof’s column from last Sunday’s New York Times:

The 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans.

The top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent.

In the Bush expansion from 2002 to 2007, 65 percent of economic gains went to the richest 1 percent.

Add to this that in many parts of the country 1 in 5 children are growing up in poverty, and you begin to have a sense of what is fueling the anger of protestors who feel they have to “occupy” public spaces in their own country – a country they feel is being stolen from them.

How have these trends concerning money and inequality affected life on a university campus? We can see it at either end of the college experience, beginning with access and ending with jobs after graduation. More of our students need financial aid than ever before, and they often need bigger scholarship packages to get through school. We also see the effects of rising inequality in the choices students face when looking for jobs as graduation nears. They hope to have had practical internship experiences to bolster their resumes while undergraduates, and they often worry that the first job they get after college will set them in an income bracket that will frame them for life. They worry that if their education doesn’t seem like job training, then it isn’t education at all.

But in the campus’s classrooms, concert halls, theaters and sports facilities, I see little evidence of the pernicious economic-political trends poisoning the country at large. That’s because the educational enterprise assumes a core egalitarianism linked to freedom and participation; that’s because as teachers we are committed to equality of opportunity for our students and to their freedom to participate as they wish in the educational enterprise. In big lecture halls, students can’t buy the best seats or arrange for extra help sessions with their parents’ checkbooks. In small seminars, there is a face-to-face equality altered only by the talent, ambition and creativity of the discussion participants. Differences often quickly emerge, but these are the differences of performance —  variations able to emerge exactly because of the environment of equality and freedom.

As a university president, I do spend a lot of my time fundraising. And I am grateful for the generosity of alumni and foundations who support our financial aid and academic programs. But I am also a professor, and this support has no impact on my teaching role or on the role of my colleagues in the classroom.  Now I know that this will strike some readers as impossibly idealistic.  After all, some of our students  have had great help along the way, while others have had to struggle alone. Some come from wealthy families, others from backgrounds of poverty. There is  no doubt that some students are better prepared than others, and that some of that preparation was facilitated by wealth. Still, in the campus culture at schools like Wesleyan, these advantages of birth or luck don’t mean much over time. In order to learn, you have to park your privilege at the classroom door. In order to teach effectively, we try to ensure that our students have an equality of opportunity that doesn’t erase their differences. Furthermore, in those schools that have protected the autonomy of professors, students come to see intellectual freedom modeled by their instructors in ways not dependent on wealth.

When inequality is a charged political problem, as it is right now in the United States, it is because efforts to scale back disparities of wealth are seen as an assault on freedom.  Increased state power is often needed to redistribute wealth, and many (and not only those with the money) see this as the growth of tyranny. Of course, increased state power is also used to protect wealth, which creates its own assaults on freedom. Universities and colleges are lucky insofar as they still have an ethos of equality that is linked to freedom in the classroom and around campus. You don’t need strong central power to ensure this. That’s why efforts to control speech with university regulations, are rightly seen (by either the Left or the Right) as anathema to the educational enterprise.  But graduation into a world in which inequality is ever more powerful comes as a rude awakening.

The campus as a place of equality and freedom has deep roots in America, at least as far back as Thomas Jefferson.  Even with all his prejudices, he favored education at the public expense to prevent the creation of permanent elites based on wealth who would try to turn the government’s powers to their own private advantage. Jefferson believed strongly that given the variability in human capacities and energy there would always be elites —  his notion of equality was an equality of access or opportunity not an equality in which everybody wins. But he also believed strongly that without a serious effort to find and cultivate new talent, the nation’s elites would harden into  an “unnatural aristocracy,” increasingly privileged, corrupt and inept.

From Jefferson to our own day, we have preserved the belief that education allows for the experience of freedom as one’s capacities are enhanced and brought into use. The author of the Declaration of Independence wanted university students to make these discoveries for themselves, not to be told to study certain fields because their futures had already been decided by their families, teachers, churches or government. Jefferson saw education as a key to preventing permanent, entrenched inequality.

Citizens are feeling they have to “occupy” the public spaces of their own country because they believe their land is being appropriated by entrenched elites. The call to “occupy”  is very similar to the Tea Party cry to “take back” our country. Can we find a way to take the experiences of freedom and equality we find in education at its best and translate them to the sphere of politics and society more broadly without at the same time increasing governmental tendencies toward tyranny? Of course, higher education has its own dilemmas of fairness and of elitism, but that does not absolve us of the responsibility to connect in positive ways what we value in research and learning to our contemporary political situation.  To make these connections productive, universities must at the very least serve as models: they must continue to strive to be places where young people discover and cultivate their independence and must themselves resist the trends of inequality that are tearing at the fabric of our country.

Wes Ruling the (Tech) World

I was headed into New York this week for some alumni meetings, and everybody was talking about an article in this week’s Observer and Betabeat about the Wesleyan impact on digital media companies in the Big Apple. I’m reminded of Vanity Fair’s saying that this little Connecticut university dominated Hollywood, or how Spin and the Village Voice talked about the Wes-Williamsburg axis dominating independent contemporary music.

It’s very cool to see the work of the Wes family recognized. Here’s the Observer article by Wes grad Ben Popper ’05:


How Wesleyan’s Counter Culture Came To Rule New York’s Tech Scene

The offices of Zelnick Media were packed on a recent evening for #DigitalWes, an alumni gathering for the graduates of Wesleyan University who had made their way from jam bands and cultural theory to the warp-speed world of Silicon Alley. Guests nibbled shrimp and steak skewers while taking in a sumptuous view of midtown Manhattan from the roof deck. The hosts were Strauss Zelnick and his partner, Jim Friedlich, both class of ’79, whose Take Two Interactive has produced some of the best-selling and most controversial video games of the past decade.

“It’s the kind of school, if you told people you wanted to end up at Goldman Sachs, they would probably chase you out of the dorm,” said John Borthwick, class of ’87, a double major in developmental economics and art history and co-founder of the Chelsea-based betaworks. “Radical transparency, open access to information, disrupting traditional media, these were the secret handshakes at Wesleyan.”

The term Wesleyan Mafia has long been used to describe a cadre of graduates in Hollywood: successful directors, studio heads and writers. In music, too, graduates of the small liberal arts college in Middletown, Conn.—about two hours from New York—have had unusual critical success that stirred talk of a Connecticut Cosa Nostra. But it’s less surprising to hear that Michael Bay and MGMT attended Wesleyan, since the school is well known for its film and music departments. While computer science has never been among Wesleyan’s specialties, alumni seem to have found an especially prominent place of late among Silicon Alley’s elite. (Disclosure: the author graduated from Wesleyan, though he’s hardly among the elite just yet.)

At the party Mr. Borthwick clustered with Andy Weissman, his co-founder at betaworks, and Stuart Ellman, co-founder of RRE Ventures. RRE is one of the biggest investors in New York, with 29 portfolio companies in Silicon Alley backed by some of the $850 million they have under management. Mr. Weissman is a venture capitalist as well, having in fact recently left betaworks to join Union Square Ventures, New York’s most well-known venture fund and one of the top performing V.C. shops in the nation. The three firms have partnered on a number of high-profile seed stage investments in New York, and RRE is a backer of betaworks.

It’s the countercultural lessons learned at Wesleyan that laid the foundation for the alumni’s success in Silicon Alley, they said. “The forefathers and mothers of the internet came out of the ’60s ethic of distributed information and power,” Mr. Borthwick said. “There is an organizing ethic, which is why I suspect you see fewer Wesleyan grads at companies like Facebook, which has a very centralized view of the world.” Sure, he built and invested in promising companies like chartbeat, bit.ly, tumblr, kickstarter and GroupMe. But Mr. Borthwick began his career as a idealistic dot-com pioneer, keen to marry the worlds of art and the web, who produced avant garde websites like äda’web, total NY and Spanker.

Fred Wilson, New York’s most prominent investor, is an M.I.T. graduate, but his co-founder at Union Square Ventures is Brad Burnham, Wesleyan class of ’77. Mr. Wilson was in the next room over, chatting with Chris Dorr, class of ’74. “Filmmakers and software developers need to be sleeping together, and it is starting to happen,” Mr. Dorr declared. Outside on the roof deck, Mr. Wilson’s daughter, currently a sophomore at Wesleyan, talked about preparing for her semester abroad.

Betabeat bumped into Adam and Todd Stone, a pair of twin brothers whom we remembered as Stone and Stone, a comedy duo that mixed dirty jokes with Broadway show tunes. Their act had always been a sort of amplified, absurdist version of Borscht Belt humor performed by what seemed like the living essence of Scarsdale Jewry.

“We tried the whole Hollywood thing, but the people out there didn’t work for us,” Adam said.

“Now we’re thinking about trying our luck in the tech scene,” said brother Todd, who was finishing up a stint as an intern at Business Insider, where he had penned the massively successful slideshows: Ten Sexiest Programmers and Ten Sexiest VCs.

Would their new start-up have any connection to their act, The Observer asked? “We’re still working on that, but it will be something we’re passionate about,” Adam said.

“Either that or twin porn, which seems to be really big on the Internet,” Todd concluded.

The crowd settled to a dull murmur as Wesleyan president Michael Roth stood in the center of the room. A former professor known for his jazz piano skills and formidably tight jeans, he was making his first foray to the tech event . “All across this country, the notion of a liberal arts education is under attack,” Mr. Roth declared. “But looking around this room tonight it’s clear to me that the skills we teach are becoming increasingly relevant in the digital age.”

Digital Wesleyan was not, of course, started as an networking effort on the part of the university. “This isn’t Harvard or Stanford—we’re actually really bad at organizing these kinds of alumni events,” Mr. Borthwick noted. “But the young Wesleyan people in tech, they’re popping up fucking everywhere.”

The events were in fact the initiative of a young graduate named Jake Levine. Betabeat found him huddled with Union Square’s Brad Burnham, debating the best way to keep the Internet free from corporate interference.

“It’s not always in the interest of the incumbent players to innovate,” Mr. Burnham explained. It’s a topic he knows firsthand, having begun his career at AT&T, a company notorious for eating its young when it comes to disruptive technologies. There Mr. Burnham, a decade older than his alumni peers, helped to build AT&T Ventures, a shop charged with the difficult task of finding promising new technologies within the strictures of a recalcitrant monopoly.

Mr. Levine had just finished reading Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks and began asking Mr. Burnham for more insight. “I never heard such a clear, concise explanations of how patent law encourages and stifles innovation,” he declared.

Mr. Burnham shook his head. “What I envy about someone like you or Benkler is the clarity of thinking. It’s like an early Maoist. You know where you want to go and don’t concern yourself with the obstacles along the way.”

The younger set at the event comprised mostly entrepreneurs, who are just as numerous, if not as powerful yet, as Wesleyan’s tech investors. Mr. Levine was working as an analyst at The Ladders when he began organizing Digital Wes. Early this year he was offered a spot as an entrepreneur-in-residence at betaworks, and four months later took a job as general manager at News.me, the social reader from betaworks backed by The New York Times.

“The people in this room where the ones who gave me my first advice,” said Dina Kaplan, co-founder of blip.tv. “At the time we started, none of us had run a business. We just had a vision for something we believed in.”

Jordan Goldman, whose acceptance to Wesleyan was chronicled in the New York Times best-seller The Gatekeepers, found funding for his first company by cold-calling the Wesleyan alumni network. “There is a very deep base here that young entrepreneurs can tap into,” confirmed Mr. Goldman, founder of Unigo, an online college guide that just raised $1.6 million from McGraw Hill. “These were the folks that got me started.”

Mr. Goldman was showing Christopher Lake, ’05, around the party, pointing out the various big names he should meet. Mr. Lake had just left an analyst position at McKinsey to try his hand at business development in the start-up world. “It’s a real eye-opener, especially compared to some of the Wes alumni at finance events I attended,” Mr. Lake said. “You’d meet a few investment bankers, a few hedge fund guys, none of whom you’d ever heard of, along with a gaggle of recent grads trying to break into the world. In that scene you get the feeling that Wesleyan will always be an also-ran. In tech, we’re distinct.”

In the elevator heading home, Betabeat met Kai Bond, from Hatch Labs, who had been chatting with several of the investors in attendance. Typically the process of finding funding for a start-up is a challenging one. Investors like to rake a new project over the coals before they commit capital. But for better or worse, the Wesleyan connection seems to have streamlined that process. “When you come to an event like this, it’s not, ‘Pitch me your idea,’” Mr. Bond noted. “It’s more like, ‘Come in for a meeting and let’s find an idea we can get behind.’”


Essays on Living With the Past

Very exciting news for me today. A new collection of my essays arrived at Broad Street Books. Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past has just appeared from Columbia University Press (http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-14568-8/memory-trauma-and-history). Some of the essays, like those on the history of medical thinking about memory disorders, date from several years ago. I wrote others, like those on photography, critical theory, and liberal education, since returning to Wesleyan as president. It’s a thrill to see them collected in this volume, especially with the cover image by my friend David Maisel, a wonderful California photographer. You can see more of his work at: http://davidmaisel.com/.

Thinking Photography with Diane Arbus and Errol Morris

My review of Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus and Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography appeared in today’s Washington Post. I’ve been teaching and writing about photography for several years, and at Wesleyan have found colleagues especially knowledgeable about the medium and its history. Jennifer Tucker writes about images and science, especially in the Victorian period, Andy Szegedy-Maszak is eloquent on photographs and our knowledge of the ancient world, and Claire Rogan does a marvelous job of making Wesleyan’s own photo collection come alive in exhibitions and catalogues. My interest in photography began as part of my study of how people make sense of the past, and in my new book, Memory, Trauma and HistoryI have included essays that examine how photographs change the ways we think about recollection and knowledge.

Each spring since coming to Wesleyan I’ve taught a course called The Past on Film that deals mostly with how some classic movies teach us about core issues in the philosophy of history. This year I am planning to integrate some discussions of photographs into the course, as I did when I first started teaching the class.

Here’s the review:


Diane Arbus made arresting, absorbing photographs of dwarfs, twins, giants, nudists and carnies. “I really believe,” she said, “there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” Together with other artists expanding the boundaries of photography in the 1960s, she altered the way we understand portraiture and thus the way we see people. She was criticized, most notably by Susan Sontag, for providing the cheap thrills of gazing at freaks. She was applauded by casual viewers, collectors and her fellow artists for turning the idea of the outsider into a compelling investigation of the possibilities and limits of representing otherness — of picturing people with whom connections are never simple, always frayed. The images stopped us in our tracks and stayed in our minds.

In “An Emergency in Slow Motion,” William Todd Schultz rushes toward Arbus convinced of the viability of psychobiography, of using general research findings in psychology to make sense of individual lives. He has written on madness and creativity, and on Truman Capote; in this book he discusses Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain, to name just some of the troubled stars who grab his attention. He professes modesty, talking of truth as a direction, not a destination, and of not being able to resolve the mysteries that are part of any complex personality. His goal “is to make sense of Diane Arbus’s psychological life . . . the subjective origins of the pictures themselves.”

Alas, “An Emergency in Slow Motion” doesn’t provide a convincing account of the subjective origins of the pictures because Schultz gives no indication that he has looked closely at them or done the basic research about how they were made. The book is handicapped by having no illustrations whatsoever — perhaps he couldn’t get permissions from the famously controlling Arbus estate. His descriptions of the important images or the process of making them are vague and uninformed. Schultz simply relies on the comprehensive exhibition catalogue “Revelations,” Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography and a handful of supplementary sources. Aside from a few interviews, he seems to have done almost no primary historical research and little reading in the history of photography.

Schultz does use a wide range of psychological theories. As if they were varieties of pasta, he throws them against the Arbus “case” to see what might stick. At times this is so trite as to be comical: “There’s a personality dimension Arbus was unusually high in, a so-called ‘artist type.’ ” He tells us she was high in “O,” which means she was “open to experience.” He tells us that Arbus’s picture-taking “was very psychological.” “What is it about these pictures? Like Plath’s ‘Ariel’ poems, they are decidedly not nice.” Right.

The perfect antidote to Schultz’s uninformed banalities about Arbus’s pictures is Errol Morris’s detailed explorations of photography’s connection to the real world. Morris is a great documentary filmmaker who has expanded the limits of that genre, and in recent years he has been blogging about photography for the New York Times. The chapters of “Believing Is Seeing” are taken from those blog posts, which show the author doggedly investigating entrenched assumptions about photographers and their pictures. Can one tell if Roger Fenton moved cannonballs around for dramatic effect in his pictures from the Crimean War? Was Sabrina Harman really smiling over a dead body in Abu Ghraib, or was it a “just say cheese” smile? Did Walker Evans add his own alarm clock to a documentary picture of a fireplace?

Facts matter to Morris, as he proves by doing basic detective work. He engages in archival research, he interviews experts, and he presses skeptically against theories and assumptions. He prides himself on “a combination of the prurient with the pedantic,” and the mixture works just as well in this book as it does in his films. Facts matter in the way that photographs matter: They tell us something but never reveal the whole story.

Photographs edit reality; they conceal even as they reveal. But Morris doesn’t rest at this level of generality. He wants to determine how this picture edits a particular reality, how that photographer tends to conceal certain aspects of reality in order to highlight others. Morris asks whether a photograph can document reality, function as propaganda and also be art. His answer is a resounding yes. The mysteries of photography stem in part from its never being able to tell the whole truth but almost always having something to say about the ways things were.

Morris tells us that his questions about the relationship between images and reality began with photographs of his father, who died when Errol was 3 years old. He has no memories of his father, but he does have images. In the chapter on documentary photography, Morris comments movingly on an Arthur Rothstein Depression-era photo of a father and his two sons seeking shelter in a dust storm. By interviewing a historian who tracked down one of the boys years later, Morris understands how the picture came to define how one of the sons viewed himself and his family. A photograph “brings time forward, but also compresses it, collapses it into one moment.” It is a moment that is found in the image but lost to the present: “Eternally trapped in the present, we are doomed to perpetually walk ‘in front’ of the past.” Photographs remind us of what cannot be seen anymore.

Morris’s book is beautifully designed, underscoring that visual evidence has its own texture, its own feel. Like Arbus, Morris knows that photographs gratify some of our deep cravings, but also that they also never fully satisfy. A photograph “partially takes us outside ourselves” and “gives us a glimpse . . . of something real.” This is a key part of what Arbus and Morris are both after.

Photography’s preservation of traces of the past offers the possibility that “we too can be saved from oblivion by an image that reaches beyond our lives.” By paying such close and caring attention to traces of the past, Morris greatly increases the possibility of their living on. He shows us what it means to do the hard work of saving memories from oblivion.