You don’t mess with what God made

This is the second time I’ve read Errol Morris. The first was last semester in Clio I, and I promised myself then that I would try to think about the issues he raises about photography and representation. I must say, before I move on, that he does a fine job of bringing out the deeper problems related to photography. I always like it when authors do that.

The issue with which I want to wrestle here is the relationship between photographs and their subject matter. This is why I quote Morris in the title of this post, which comes from the fifth part of his article. There, he mentions a rule of photography: “you don’t mess with what God has created. You observe; you don’t interact. You don’t touch anything.” In other words, to make accurate photographs, just take a picture; do not manipulate the scene. Morris, rightly, rejects this rule: “[b]ut the minute you take one picture as opposed to another, or the minute you select one photograph from a group of photographs, you are doing something very, very similar to manipulating reality.” The act of snapping a photo manipulates the image of what it captures. Hence, it is impossible not to mess with what God made.

At first, I was uncomfortable with Morris’ reaction. I felt like he was being simplistic, and I wanted to come up with a few counter examples in my post. Specifically, I wanted to object to his example of a surveillance camera in part four. He writes that taking photographs with a camera breaks the rule, because someone puts the camera in position. “[T]he issue of posing [cameras and photographs] collapses into absurdity,” he argues, because at every level intentions leak into the process of taking a photograph.

One should ask Morris, then, if he thinks all intentions are the same and whether they have the same affect on photography. For me, there is a great difference between the images taken by a surveillance camera, which swings back and forth on a timer all day and all night at an empty hallway, and Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photo. I’m not referring to the artistic skill. I mean intentions. There is much more manipulation of the mother than there is of an empty hallway. Moreover, when a burglar steps in front of the camera, there is no photographer there directing him or her so that, say, the lighting is good or he or she steps on the right marks on the floor.

After reconsidering my reaction to Morris, I realize that I should think about his article as a starting point. Even a long, seven-part article cannot do justice to a deep, philosophical problem. I imagine that Morris would have explained his argument much more fully had he written a long book. Taking a step back, I take the basic conclusion that any image, whether analogue or digital, is, as a general rule, more complex than I assume. When I look at the woman in the Migrant Mother photo as evidence of the plight of Depression-era people, I need to remember that there is more to the picture than I expect. Maybe the best evidence of this for me is the picture of her with her children in the last part of the article. Bill Ganzel is right that the second image undermines the desperation of the original. The second image also undermines Dorothea Lange’s intention in Migrant Mother. The more I look at the original, the more intentions I will find, and I’m sure, if I did a great deal of research, I would keep finding new details about the way the photo was taken.

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One Comment on “You don’t mess with what God made”


  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts here, thank you.


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