Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Scholarship of Fakery

In the recent teapost-storm over Souvid Datta we see a fair number of shrill doofuses trying to attack Magnum by digging up the same old stories about Capa. "The fire he faced at Omaha Beach wasn't withering as he said, it was relatively light!" and so on. Most famously, did he stage the Falling Soldier photo or not? The naysayers, of course, are sure he did.

They can't even read the wikipedia page to learn the juicier accusation that Capa didn't even shoot it. Their historical ignorance is, as a rule, astoundingly complete.

Anyways, be that as it may. In 1936 we were just learning that handy device for discrediting photographs we don't like by accusing them of being staged, modified, faked, or what have you. My intention here is to give you a little insight into the kinds of scholarship that turn up in this little cottage industry of tearing down.

In 1936 James Agee and Walker Evans spent some time with some sharecroppers, documenting their lives with photos and words. The assignment was for Forbes, and the resulting article was, for a long time, lost. More on that in a moment. Forbes declined to publish, so the two eventually (1941) put out a famous book entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men which is a pile of experimental writing from Agee, and some pictures by Walker Evans. Everyone knows the pictures, and nobody has read the book.

In the 1991 James Curtis published a book entitled Mind's Eye, Mind's Truth in which he points out the now-obvious fact that the FSA photography project was propaganda. In it he makes the claim that Walker Evans moved stuff around to make better pictures, while on assignment with Agee. This is something Evans would deny vigorously. He didn't think moving things around made better pictures, but I don't think he gave much of a damn in terms of literal truth of the frame. At any rate, not in the modern hysterical sense.

Curtis has a lot to say in his book, much of which seems to be pretty spot on. He does, however, level specific accusations at Evans. He wants to say that Evans staged all sorts of stuff, moved things around on the sharecropper cabins willy-nilly. He's on pretty shaky ground, but he has one big smoking gun that makes the rest of his stuff seem more credible. His arguments are repeated, questioned, and ultimately found to be pretty sound in Errol Morris's book Seeing is Believing. The smoking gun is this:

At one point in Agee's writing there is an exhaustive list of the contents of a mantel. In Evans's photo of the same mantel we see much of what Agee describes, and an Alarm Clock, not mentioned in the list. At this point, Curtis essentially makes the argument that it looks like a travel alarm clock, the kind Evans would have, and without saying as much "and what would a bunch of poor dumbshit farmers have a clock for anyways." The whole argument hinges on the idea that the family doesn't have a clock because why would they, and also Agee doesn't mention a clock in his text.

I will now quote from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In this passage, in a section entitled The House is Left Alone Agee is talking about what it's like to be alone in the house, inspecting it unwitnessed:

... it is now my chance to perceive this, their home, as it is, in whose hollow heart resounds the loud zinc flickering heartbeat of the cheap alarm two hours advanced upon false time; ...

I'm going to start swearing loudly now, because this still infuriates me, years later. These Curtis's crap is everywhere, thanks to Errol Morris, and that angers me.

Goodness me. What could this be. Why, it's Agee, saying that the Gudger family owns a fucking cheap alarm clock.

Curtis didn't read the goddamned book. Errol Morris didn't read the goddamned book. Curtis's critics, to their eternal shame, evidently didn't read the goddamned book. Has anyone except me read this fucking thing?

This is just lousy scholarship. Curtis simply couldn't be bothered to wade through what is admittedly a difficult book to check his assertion (or, worse, maybe he did and just hoped that nobody else would, an apparently worthy hope).

The original Agee article was eventually unearthed and published in 2013, well after Curtis and Morris did their damage, as Cotton Tenants. This book contains the following footnote:

Though each family has a lowprice alarm clock and as a rule keeps it wound and is respectful of it, the clock is almost invariably an hour or two fast or slow, and they are innocent of any time except the sun's.

Now, I don't know anything about the allegations surrounding Capa's "fakery" beyond what I've read on wikipedia, and I don't care. The point is this: there's some very bad scholarship out there. You can make a name for yourself tearing down, and you don't have to be very careful about it.

Curtis, for reference, is a vastly more respectable scholar than most of the people involved in tearing down in this modern era of the Internet.


  1. I don't have a very coherent comment to make. I now do a lot of documentary photography. Before that, I was, for a while, a young Marine Infantry Officer. During that time I had many jobs, one was being the assistant operations officer of an infantry battalion in Vietnam. One of my duties was to write the after-action reports of the battalion and to keep an official diary of daily. events. So when Captain 'Jones' and his company encountered NVA troops it was my job to, over the radio, get said Captain to tell me how many enemy troops there where, how many tanks, and where they were, and what they were doing. Most of the time, Captain 'Jones' who was a good friend, would tell me to go f*** myself. Then the Battalion Commander would be extremely annoyed with me and told me in no uncertain terms to get more accurate information. Captain 'Jones' would repeat his earlier pronouncement and I would reluctantly 'envision his predicament' and type out the diary on the ribbon less typewriter, directly unto the stencil paper. I am sure that after due course this would arrive somewhere in DC and be filed for future historians to digest at a later date and make definitive pronouncements as to exactly what had happened at the battle, just below the DMZ, between this particular rifle company and the NVA battalion from the 324-B Division.

    1. That is a fascinating bit of personal insight. I wonder if the aggregate data averages out to "roughly accurate" anyways, though? Presumably you *did* have an idea, although the documentation on this skirmish might be mostly derived from the gossip about the previous skirmish, the overall picture might have been roughly right.

      Anyways. When I start making coherent blog posts, I'll start getting snippy about people making coherent comments. Until then, ramble away!

  2. Thanks, I appreciate the response. I guess one thing I wanted to convey is that 'Monday Morning Quarterbacking' and 'The Scholarship of Fakery' can really lead us 'further and further from K-Mart' in many instances. I think our main defense against much of this is to constantly hone our 'critical thinking skills.' 'Smoke and mirrors, 'fake news,' propaganda, everything we hear and see has to be critically evaluated. The 'truth' ain't what it used to be, and it never was.

  3. I've done a bit of documentary work (Dark Matter and Scarred Land series on my website) and also some nature photography. Many of the photo enhusiasts in Estonia are nature photographers and the ones I happen to know are mostly purists - they hate plane contrails and cell phone towers more than anything, etc. Some even claim they never crop their images. At some point in my career I took pride in following similar rules. Then there was this trained wolf scandal, this image http://www.nationalgeographic.com/content/dam/photography/photos/000/655/65519.ngsversion.1467253501745.adapt.1900.1.jpg and so on and so on. And my own thinking started to change towards telling my story however the f*** I want. Be it staged or not, photoshopped or not. Nowadays I tend to think that if people even think "how exactly he made this image" without noticing the bigger story, I've failed. It's not about how the individual image is made, it's about how the series works. Of course I realize 1) there has to be documentary photography and 2) I have nothing to do in the documentary competitions, but I can express myself the way I want. I knowingly choose not to be part of those strict and sometimes hypocritical camps.

    In this light, served differently (with context and credits), the picture where Datta cloned Asma, would be totally OK. I can imagine series where all images include parts of some other works and still be strong and serious project.

    It's still wrong that Datta broke the rules of the competition, it's wrong that he said the image is something it isn't, it's bad that he messed with such a sensitive topic, but I don't see anything wrong with creating such image in the first place.

    1. Actually I'm probably wrong when saying that Datta broke the rules of the competition, cause I don't know what he submitted there. I somehow assumed that the entry contained the same picture I discussed.

    2. He did misrepresent the photoshop job as something it was not, and furthermore as literally true.

  4. You noted above, in response to my first comment, that "... the overall picture might have been roughly right..." Isn't that one part of the problem. We seem to be much more critical of photos than we are of words. As far as my personal photo work goes, I am very much in agreement with what Karel has to say above. Well, it is a fun and fascinating topic, and that ought to count for something! :)

    1. Yeah, I am sort of back and forth about the "literal truth of the frame". It's one of those ideas that seems right, but in the end it seems to be in the first place almost irrelevant, and in the second place the only time anyone seems to actually *care* is when they have an ulterior motive to "tear down" someone else or someone else's picture.