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.