Showing posts with label Photography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Photography. Show all posts

Notes on "Photo-Wallahs" (1992)

My friend Kate Pourshariati recently organized a screening of the documentary film Photo-Wallahs (1992) at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. She invited me to briefly introduce the film and moderate a discussion. Below is a slightly revised version of my notes from the event.

David and Judith MacDougall have been making documentary films since the late 1960s, and they’ve made films on people from numerous regions, from Africa, to Italy, to Australia, to India. Besides this film, they’ve done several other documentaries based in India, including Doon School Chronicles, on the elite boarding school in Dehra Dun, and Gandhi’s Children, focusing on slum children in Delhi. (Many of their documentaries are made collaboratively, but they have sometimes also worked on their own. Doon School Chronicles has David McDougall’s name on it exclusively, while a recent film, Diyas, was directed exclusively by Judith McDougall.)  In addition to making films, David MacDougall has written a fair amount about film and issues related to visual anthropology over the years, including two books, Transcultural Cinema and The Corporeal Image

Photo-Wallahs is a film about the culture of photography in the famous hill station of Mussoorie, with some scenes filmed in Dehra Dun. The method of the documentary is “observational,” which is to say there’s no background narration from the film-makers, and the audience has to do the work of putting together the individual pieces and themes themselves. The filmmakers focus on two different kinds of professional photography, 1) tourism photography, which involves middle-class tourists paying to be photographed dressed up in fanciful costumes with the Mussoorie hills in the background; and 2) more conventional studio photography, such as is used in matrimonial ads and wedding pictures. They also have brief sections involving people who are not photographers, including a segment with Sita Devi of Kapurthala (who was photographed by the fashion photographer Cecil Beaton in England in the 1930s), as well as a segment with the Indian writer Ruskin Bond, reading from his story “The Photograph.”

Spring -- a photo

In the next couple of weeks, I'm going to start uploading photos to Flickr again -- after a long pause. (Expect some new photos of the little one. Also, hopefully I can get some of the cherry blossoms before they fall from the trees...)

More Errol Morris, Documentary Photography, and the Intentional Fallacy

The three part Errol Morris series on the 1855 Fenton photographs of the "Valley of the Shadow of Death" wrapped up a couple of days ago, with a lengthy and definitive conclusion: parts one, two, and three. (I very briefly summarized the basic question Morris is interested in here)

What's interesting about this from a literary critical perspective is the way Morris struggles against what might be a kind of documentarians' version of the "intentional fallacy" in attempting to discern the ordering of the two photos. Beyond anything else, he really wants to find formal, empirical evidence -- from the photographs themselves -- that would prove definitively which photo was taken first.

Morris talks to numerous "forensic photography" experts along the way, and while each one adds a certain amount of technical data relating to lighting and contrast (which might possibly indicate time of day), only one of the experts can actually discover the visual clue that finally puts the question to rest. But even as the experts contribute technical information, they can't help but speculate on Fenton's motives. Questions about what the photographer might have been thinking or aiming for always seem to enter back into the picture: for instance, did he put the cannonballs in the road to make himself as a photographer look more heroic, or simply because it would show the balls in greater contrast? In that sense "experts" are in the same analytic space as Susan Sontag, the critic/theorist whose original interpretive (and one might say, speculative) comments on the Fenton photographs started Morris down this long road to begin with. They may have access to information Sontag didn't have, but they are still, at the end of the day, just interpreters.

In other words, thinking about the photographer's intention may be a "fallacy" in the sense that it can never prove anything empirically, but it's a practice engaged in by nearly everyone Morris talks to. Morris himself is the only one who comes close to being immune to it -- he inoculates himself against his interlocutors' speculations with frequent editorial comments on their reasoning.

Was This Photograph Staged?

Above is a photo by Roger Fenton, taken in 1855, during the Crimean War. In a blog post at the New York Times, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris researches the history of the photo, focusing on the cannonballs in the middle of the road. Susan Sontag and other historians of photography have argued that the cannonballs were probably intentionally scattered by the photographer to create the illusion of danger, mainly because Fenton also took another photo from the same tripod position the same day -- where the cannonballs are lined up neatly on the side of the road.

Morris does find one historian who suggests a possible alternative to the prevailing theory about the photograph -- perhaps it wasn't staged after all? The alternative theory is that the cannonballs were lined up because they were going to be "harvested" by the soldiers Fenton was traveling with, and recycled against the Russians who shot them in the first place.