Master documentarian Morris serves up an erudite, sometimes recondite examination of the power of photographs to conceal as much as they reveal.
The author, known for films such as The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, is a truth-teller, skilled at using filmic and photographic evidence to reveal truth and innocence. Here he interrogates the truth—or not—of images iconic and scarcely known, beginning with a long and sometimes dauntingly technical disquisition on a brace of photographs taken in the Crimean War following the vaunted Charge of the Light Brigade. In one image, cannonballs lie neatly arranged along the side of the road along which the attack occurred; in another, the cannonballs are strewn about as if they had fallen there. Did the British photographer move the cannonballs to heighten the drama of the image, or did British engineers clean up the road so that equipment could pass? In other words, which image came first? Doggedly, Morris traveled to Crimea to find the site and puzzle over the position of the sun to answer those questions. The cross-examination is leisurely, methodical, sometimes even plodding, but there’s a purpose to the slow establishment of forensic fact, since Morris then moves on to more recent—and certainly controversial—photographs taken at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Readers will remember the smiling thumbs-up over corpses, the damaged fellow standing wired as if ready to be crucified. So does Morris, who insists, “The photographs are the start of a trail of evidence, but not the end…We shouldn’t allow what happened at Abu Ghraib to disappear except for a smile.” Along the way, the author gets in a few digs at theoreticians of photography, taking genteel issue with the arid Susan Sontag/Roland Barthes school of interpretation. But mostly he sticks to what he sees before him, and not on what others have seen and said.
Students of photography—and fans of CSI—will find this a provocative, memorable book.