Correspondence: John G. Morris - John Mraz,
November 2002-March 2003.

John G. Morris, Letter of 21 November 2002

Subject: Comment on the John Mraz article

My attention has just been called to the article in Zone Zero by John Mraz, "What's documentary about photography? From directed to digital photojournalism." Perhaps without intending to, for there is ample evidence that he knows not of what he writes, Mr. Mraz has maligned many of the most important photographers of the twentieth century. Since most of them are friends and/or former colleagues of mine -- many long gone -- I should like to reply, in their defense.

  1. Joe Rosenthal (Iwo Jima flag raising): If this picture was "directed," so was World War II -- in a sense we were all propagandists, aiming at victory. Joe has honestly told the story of how this picture was made, many times. It is a disservice to say that men were "repeatedly made to lie about the event."

  2. Yes, Robert Doisneau posed the famous photo of the kiss, on a LIFE assignment, but that should not detract from his great record as one who documented life in France in all its reality.

  3. Dorothea Lange: To accuse her of posing the Migrant Mother is ridiculous. The woman and her child were there. Dorothea made six exposures, perhaps moving a bit herself, to obtain the classic photo.

  4. Roy Stryker: Having worked with him at the very first University of Missouri Workshop in 1949, I testify that Roy was the most demanding of all directors of photographers. He insisted, for example, that his FSA photographers read J. Russell Smith's classic study "North America" before they even started work.

  5. Arthur Rothstein, whom I last saw on his deathbed: Mr. Mraz fails to quote Arthur's written description of how this picture was made: "I photographed Arthur Coble and his sons Milton and Darrel as they did chores, but the vicious winds made it difficult to see and breathe.

    As dust began to fill the air, I headed for my car and the Cobles started walking to the farmhouse. When I got in my car, I wanted to wave goodbye. I turned and saw the family fighting the wind and took this photograph -- the last frame on the roll of film."

  6. Robert Capa: Mraz has fallen for the drivel first published by Philip Knightley and since copied by many. It has been refuted by Capa's biographer Richard Whelan, and by common sense.

    I suspect that it was a dull day at the front and that the soldiers were showing off to the camera -- witness the first man who ran down the hill. That alerted the enemy and one man died. I have been under fire with Capa, at the siege of Saint Malo in Brittany, and the same thing almost happened to me, in an hour of boredom.

    I got shot at personally, for no good reason but my own stupid curiosity, I was luckier than the Loyalist militaman. The shot missed. Capa, very sensibly, was nearby indoors at the time,, drinking some good wine and totally unaware of what was happening outside -- otherwise he would have chewed me out.
  7. W. Eugene Smith: I first worked with him, as a LIFE reporter, in 1939, and was the executor of his estate. His essay, “Country Doctor,” was a landmark in photojournalism, far superior in my estimation to his later essay, “Spanish Village,” which though beautiful graphically suffered from Smith's inability to speak the language and from his somewhat unrealistic desire to challenge the Franco regime through photography,
  8. Weegee was a rascal. His early work was fabulous and certainly for real. Later he began to take himself too seriously and "went Hollywood." Liotta swears by the story of the Metropolitan Opera opening, so it must be true. Does that make the rest of Weegee's pictures "directed?"
  9. Ruth Orkin I first met when she rode a bicycle from her job as an MGM messenger in Culver City to show me her pictures at the LIFE office on the Sunset Strip.

    Mraz has the story absolutely right about the Roman setup picture, but that's not typical of her work. As picture editor of Ladies' Home Journal I offered $2,000 for cover pictures of women who had never posed professionally. Ruth sold me the first one, of a girl shopping in a flower market in downtown New York.

    This illustrates the difference between posed and unposed -- or if you prefer, directed and undirected. Ruth made a date with this young woman to photograph her shopping for fruit. Directed, I suppose. The girl buys some fruit. But she puts too much in the bag; it falls apart and the fruit starts to fall out. She spontaneously grabs the bag. Momentarily she is undirected -- the moment of truth, and the photo we used.
  10. Which brings us to Cartier-Bresson's decisive moments. I first met Henri in Paris in 1944, introduced by Robert Capa. I worked with him for eight years as Magnum's international executive editor, 1953-61. I learned a lot from him, much from simply studying his contact sheets. I agree that the concept of the decisive moment is useful, but it can also be tricky, as Salgado points out.

    It might interest Mraz to know that Salgado and Cartier-Bresson remain friends, even though they work quite differently. Henri was also an admirer of Gene Smith, for that matter, and of Edward Weston. What concerns me is that Mr. Mraz implies that the above photographers were not truly concerned with reality. That they "directed" history. And that digital photography, where reality can be tinkered with, is pretty much the same thing. I personally don't think it's that different.

    Photojournalists are fast adjusting to digital, using it as a very effective tool. Good picture editors can tell whether their work is "real" or not. It's fine if artists, such as Pedro Meyer, use digital to "create" pictures. That's something else. Cartier-Bresson calls himself a photographer, not an artist -- and he regards discussions such as this as a waste of time.

    Mr. Mraz raises some important questions. How can he do this without even referring to my book, GET THE PICTURE: A Personal History of Photojournalism? It has been translated into French, Italian and Japanese but not into Spanish. Now there's a challenge!

John G. Morris, Paris

John Mraz, Reply of 22 November 2003

Dear John Morris,

I am honored to make the acquaintance of someone of your stature, even if only by email and despite the tone of your missive. Of course I know your fine and important book, GET THE PICTURE: A Personal History of Photojournalism (NY, 1998). While your book is a fundamental reference for anyone working on modern photojournalism, I am not sure I see the relevance to the immediate discussion at hand, since you dedicate little attention to the issue of directed photography other than the admonitions of Cliff Edom on p. 125 against "setups" (who you indicate was not a photojournalist, but rather a professor of journalism), and your observations on the Capa image of the "Dying Republican" (p. 155-156, with which I do not agree, see below).

Unfortunately, for the essay published on Zonezero, I removed much of the scholarly appartus from the original text that will appear as part of my book, Nacho López, Mexican Photographer, to be published soon by the University of Minnesota Press. López was a photojournalist in the Eugene Smith mold, committed to denouncing social injustice and exploring the esthetics of the documentary form. He worked for the Mexican illustrated magazines, and one of his strategies was that of directing images, a tactic he described as "previsualization". My interest in examining the history of directed photojournalism was in constructing some sort of a backdrop against which to measure the work of López.

Let me say at the outset that it was never my intention to malign anyone, nor to put into question the courage required to be a photojournalist. The men and women who haved lost their lives in search of ways to show us the news are testimony enough to their bravery. The essay published on Zonezero is part of a larger analysis of documentary form, the credibility that is its bedrock, and the realist esthetic utilized to take advantage of its believability as well as the fact that it is, as an index, something very different than other kinds of images or symbols. I want to test the notion that digitalization is the "death of documentary/photojournalism" by showing how many of the famous icons have to some degree, or in some way, been a result of the "previsualization" that Nacho López described as one of his methods. As my work is essentially on Mexican photography, and I live in Mexico, the essay published on Zonezero reflects my own constraints, both in terms of my particular interests as well as the research that it is possible to carry out. In the case of US photography, I have had to rely on secondary sources, both because my focus is on Mexican photography, and because of the limited library resources here. However, I do believe that my assertions are defendible, as I will argue case-by-case below.

  1. Joe Rosenthal: You may be right: it may be misleading to say that Rosenthal's photo is "directed". I was placing his image within a larger tradition of direction, which would include such "re-enactments". I will ask Pedro Meyer to change the sentence to read, “Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer-Prize winning image of the flag raising over Iwo Jima in 1945 is also somewhat of a re-creation." In asserting that this photo "is also somewhat of a re-creation," I am referring to the fact that an earlier flag had already been raised. Martha Rosler is a photo historian for whom I have much respect, and I quote her to the effect that "the men were repeatedly made to lie about the event." I will leave the defense of that position up to her.

  2. Robert Doisneau: It was not my intention to "detract from Doisneau's great record as one who documented life in France in all its reality." I simply cited the foremost scholar in English of Doisneau's work, Richard Hamilton, in asserting that Doisneau "would later stage what he had observed".

  3. Dorothea Lange: Anyone who has seen the various negatives of the Migrant Mother, most of which are available in the Curtis book, can have little doubts that Lange directed the mother to place herself in different poses with different children, and that her intervention in the creation of this image went far beyond moving herself about the scene as it developed. As Curtis argues, "Lange did not arrive at this final composition by accident, but by patient experimentation with various poses." (p. 49)

  4. Roy Stryker may have been demanding, but according to the now very extensive bibliography on the FSA, he had little problem with his photographers moving objects or having people pose in order to illustrate a social or economic problem, as long as such "manipulation" was not detected.

  5. The quote provided by Morris does not provide any immediate information about the question of direction, and Arthur Rothstein has told many stories about how the "dust storm" image was made. If the photo was not directed, then I am at a loss to understand why he wrote about the process in such articulate detail in his 1943 essay, "Direction in the Picture Story.". I think that Rothstein came to regret his candor, and understood that "believability" was the touchstone of his imagery. The quote Morris cites is not identified, but may date from Rothstein's later "recanting".

  6. My own research on the photography of the Spanish Civil War indicates that it is not strange to think that the Capa photo is directed; to cite only one example of published material, see the imagery of Agustí Centelles. Further, the most authoritative work in English on the photography of that war, by Caroline Brothers, concurs that the two photos published in Vu would seem to confirm that suspicion. I have spent much time in Spain as a Visiting Professor at the University of Barcelona, and my own experiences make me doubt the work of such "amateur historians" such as Mario Brotons. Further, even if this particular individual died on that day, that does not prove that this image is of his death.

    Again, the internet format (and absence of scholarly apparatus) meant that I had to cut the following footnote, which appears in the book, Nacho López, Mexican Photograper: "In a study carried out on all the Barcelona newspapers for the years 1936-1937, it was determined that at least half of the photos published "were not really spontaneous, but had been prepared or mounted in some way." See Josep Lluís Gómez Mompart, "L'Origen de la comunicació visual de masses (1936-1939)," Anàlisi 13 (1990): 135. I have discovered many instances of directed imagery in my research in the anarcho-syndicalist newspaper published in Barcelona before and during the Civil War, Solidaridad Obrera. On Centelles, see Agustí Centelles (1909-1985) Fotoperiodista (Barcelona: Fundació Caixa de Catalunya, 1988); the photographs reproduced on pages 89, 93, 125, 137 offer examples of setups. In English, see the introduction to Centelles by J.R. Green, "Agustí Centelles: Spanish Civil War Photographer," History of Photography 12, no. 2 (1988): 147-159; posed photographs are reproduced on pages 151 and 155. Capa and Gerda Taro apparently participated in photographing a mock attack on the village of La Granjuela in June of 1936; see Richard Whelan, Robert Capa: A Biography (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1985), 119."

  7. I fail to see what your statements about Smith have to do with the question of direction.

  8. I never alleged that all of Weegee's photos are directed. I mention two that I believe are.

  9. I said explicitly about Orkin, "It would appear that Ruth Orkin only utilized this procedure for the one image she made in Rome." I don't think I could have made it any clearer. I do think that you are right in arguing that the photo with the shopping bag demonstrates the complexity of direction, the many forms it can and does take. Above all, it shows how the photographic act is best when surprise occurs.

  10. I have no doubt that Salgado and Cartier-Bresson are friends, or that both admire Gene Smith and Edward Weston.

I believe that we have a fundamental misunderstanding, constructed in spite of the fact that we are really in agreement. Thus, Morris argues: "What concerns me is that Mr. Mraz implies that the above photographers were not truly concerned with reality. That they "directed" history. And that digital photography, where reality can be tinkered with, is pretty much the same thing. I personally don't think it's that different. Photojournalists are fast adjusting to digital, using it as a very effective tool. Good picture editors can tell whether their work is ‘real’ or not."

I do believe that these photographers were concerned, in the main, with "reality". That's what makes their work interesting. I too am concerned with reality, and for that reason I closed my essay by arguing that we need documentary photography to break out of our solipsism, to see the world beyond our bellybuttons. I quote my last paragraph:

"In sum, digitalization seems to be as unavoidable as globalization. However, as important as acknowledging the victory of computer over chemical photography is the examination of its implications. Does digitalization necessarily include alteration? Will the documentary esthetic of discovery, of research, of receptiveness to chance disappear with the chemical process? I would argue that -- despite the many instances of direction, alteration, or manipulation in chemical photography -- the medium invented in 1839 made available to the world a new form of communication and a new way of preserving the traces of the past: technical images. This medium led to the development of a new esthetic, which we have come to call "documentary," that is somehow bound up with the real world in a way different from that of other forms of representation. If we make the mistake of throwing this baby out with the bathwater I fear we will all be the poorer for it."

I believe that Mr. Morris and I are on the same side in this battle. So, where's the beef?

Saludos, John Mraz

John G. Morris, Reply of 23 November 2003

Dear John Mraz:

Thanks for your courteous reply. I'm sorry, but I find that like many scholars, you fail to see the forest for the trees. I did not realize your primary objective was a biography of Lopez, whose work I unfortunately do not know, but the word "previsualization" makes me suspicious. I'm glad you admire my book but I'm sorry that you didn't find it useful, preferring secondary sources -- those who knew neither the photographers nor the events they covered. To reply to your reply:

  1. I don't know Rosler but I do know Rosenthal, and I think even your revision is unfair. It's like saying a photo of the second round of a fight isn't true because it isn't the first round. The battle of Iwo Jima did not go into recess just because the guys put up a second flag. In fact at least one of them soon died.

  2. It's true that Doisneau did stage more than that one photo, but didn't he do it skillfully?

  3. Lange: If you want to call what Dorothea did "direction," I suppose that's okay, but you make it sound like a putdown. What the FSA photographers did, and I knew most of them, was to acquaint themselves with people and gain their confidence in order to show them as they really lived. This takes time, and often produces a bunch of junky pictures to begin with.

  4. Roy Stryker was totally naive about photography when he took over the FSA group. That's by his own boast. He scarcely knew one end of a camera from the other. He did know a lot about human geography. Roy learned a lot from Cliff Edom -- and from me for that matter - at that first Missouri workshop. See page 122 of my book, and I hope you have the new University of Chicago Press paperback edition, which has a new Foreword and Afterword.

  5. Rothstein: The quote I gave you is from Arthur's 1986 Focal Press book Documentary Photography. I can only explain the earlier quote by remarking that Arthur was Director of Photography at Look at that time, and perhaps thought he should justify his title. Another thing: Sure, Arthur moved the skull, so what? Is that any different from what I did to walk up the road with a Japanese shell fragment so that Eliot Elisofon could photograph it, out of sight of our competition? (pages 56-59 in my book).

  6. Capa's Dying Soldier: I haven't read Brothers, but I think Whelan has a different interpretation of her research. I don't care whether it was Federico Borrell, or not, but a man died, and it bothered Bob the rest of his life. See pages 154-156. Yes, Capa was a propagandist for the Spanish Loyalists. The war in Spain was a warmup for the big one, where we were all propagandists, trying to defeat Fascism and Nazism. But we soon learned that the best way to do that was to tell the truth. For example, LIFE almost fell for a photo by AP photographer Harrison Roberts, who thought it necessary to stage a battle scene in North Africa. As I recall, we ran it in “Speaking of Pictures,” as a fake. Phony setup pictures, if taken, shouldn't have survived the censors. The problem with censorship was that some important things didn't get through at all, or weren't even taken, for knowing they would be censored -- like the suffering of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. See my book

  7. Gene Smith: Gene's case is perhaps the most complex. I worked with him several times on straight news -- e.g. survivors of the Andrea Doria -- and he posed nothing. His essay, “Country Doctor,” is a landmark, and totally unposed, as I recall. As I said, I think he went overboard posing in “Spanish Village,” though I believe Steichen called it Gene's greatest work. The quote from Gene in Photo Notes, for which I also wrote, is accurate. But remember that Gene battled with Schweitzer to present an honest picture, and then resigned from LIFE because he felt the layout did not do so. It seems to me you do not give sufficient credit to these great photographers.

  8. and 9. No great argument on Weegee and Bubley. Weegee was great until he "went Hollywood." Glad you understand my anecdote about Ruth and the Journal cover. An even better example, from my Journal days: Esther Bubley was assigned to shoot the story of a family in a small New York apartment - nothing obviously dramatic. One day the housewife was ironing clothes. Going through the contacts, I noted one frame where the woman's eyes looked up, in alarm, rather than down, at the clothes she was ironing. I asked Esther, "What happened?" "That's when the baby cried," she replied. I call it "the housewife's decisive moment." The picture becomes true to life when the subject loses consciousness of being photographed. A setup turns into the real thing. Page 110.

Finally, maybe we're not so far apart after all. I didn't like your emphasis on the down side of direction, and I thought you were unfair to several photographers. Digital should be the least of our problems, in fact it has great advantages, but one of them is NOT its ability to falsify. That is what has caused very justified alarm in the community of photojournalism. Even worse is the way photographers are used by newsmakers, through photo ops, and such.

I applaud your seriousness. Perhaps we'll meet some time. Regards to Pedro and Trish.

John G. Morris, Paris

John Mraz, Reply of 26 January 2003

Dear John Morris,

Thank you for your courteous reply, and for taking the time to wrestle around with these issues, which seem to me to be fundamental in the contemporary world. It is clear that we don't agree about everything, and perhaps there is a big difference between this essay coming out on its own, and being part of a larger study on documentary. In another message, I have sent you the revised version of the Rosenthal paragraph, as well as notes to preface the essay.

Let me begin by stating that I am absolutely convinced that the photos of which we are herein speaking are the "classics" of the documentary genre. They are wonderful, moving, and biting slices of time embalmed by the artistic-technical capacities of these photographers/artists. It is precisely because of their aesthetic power, without doubt the result of the photographers themselves being committed to the very movements -- and moments-- they document, that we continue to talk about them.

I understand your suspician of Nacho López's concept of "previsualization". But isn't he searching for some kind of an theoretical-esthetic justification (perhaps like Jean Rouch) for something that seems to have been a not-unusual practice, above all in features? Doesn't he bring out in the open what we know to have been a practice? For example, Bert Hardy, certainly one of the leading British combat photojournalists, was described by Harold Evans as having "recalled scores of 'news' photographs he had staged." What are we to do with this information? What I am attempting to interrogate is precisely that disjuncture between what we might describe as a "common-sense" view of photojournalism, in which non-intervention is assumed, and what seems to have occurred in variance with that vision.

The Mexican photojournalist I would consider to be the most sophisticated, and a great photographer who was the first Mexican to win the Mother Jones Award, Francisco Mata Rosas, addressed the issue of direction in an interesting way:

"The idea of directing a situation collides head on with time-honored beliefs about photojournalism: in the traditional view, if you direct you are manipulating reality and adulterating the information. But, calling direction ‘manipulation’ assumes that there is no intervention in the photographic act. I don't feel that you're manipulating the photographic act so much as you're using it as a basis for creating. It's a tool that every photojournalist ought to carry in his backpack, like a wide-angle lens, a telephoto, a flash or filters. Whether to pose or not is like whether to use flash or natural light; it's an option you ought to have and, above all, ought to know how to use, because directing a scene is more complicated than taking a direct photo. You need great capacity to be able to do it, but it can be incredibly powerful. The only problem with a directed photo is when it doesn't work."

I live in Mexico, where library facilities are essentially non-existent. For obvious reasons, research for the Zonezero essay on directed photojournalism was largely confined to secondary sources, which I discovered while carrying out research as a visiting professor at Oxford, Duke, Dartmouth, and other universities. I cannot, for reasons of both interest and lack of access, carry out further research on non-Mexican photojournalism.

Let me address your comments point-by-point:

I hope you will find the revised version of the Rosenthal image of interest. I believe that this has become such an ideologically-charged image that interpreting it will become increasingly thorny.
Of course Doisneau was skillful. If he hadn't been we wouldn't be talking about him.
Yes, you are right that the FSA photographers acquainted themselves with the people they were photographing, but contemporary studies of the FSA seems to indicate that they didn't even do the kind of superficial research that Lewis Hine carried out. In the case of the Migrant Mother, it appears that Lange spent no more than ten minutes with the woman.
The "law" which you note that Edom laid down in that Workshop was, "No setups....Observe, but don't direct." How then are we to interpret Rothstein's direction of the "Family Fleeing a Dust Storm." I continue to believe that this scene was directed (and James Curtis's research is pretty convincing), because if not, Rothstein completely destroyed his credibility by concocting a lengthy lie about it for the Encyclopedia of Photography in 1943. I personally find it much better for Rothstein's reputation to believe that he staged the scene, couldn't admit to it because of precisely the reaction among the conservative congress his "skull photos" caused, later decided that it was important to describe in the Encyclopedia how one went about that sort of thing, and finally realized that he had compromised himself in relation to the noninterventional esthetic, changing to his final version. I am not judging either this image or the "skull photos", but simply analyzing them as forms of directed photojournalism.
I am not very impressed with Whelan's research nor his focus. He has, of course, written a fine, popular biography of Capa, but I fear that mercantilist, non-scholarly interests took precedence. That is, I think he capitulated to popularity, fearing that he might reduce his market by either (1) Killing the golden goose of Capa by opening up the possibility that he had staged his most famous photo, or (2) Turning off his editors with a discussion of photographic theory, when all they really wanted was a first-rate adventure story about a celebrity photojournalist. For example, despite noting the problematic posed by the fact that, in Vu, "two men are shown falling on almost precisely the same spot" (p. 97), he draws no inference from this, nor from the fact that "Capa arranged a whole attack scene" at a later date (p. 119). Rather, instead of asking why someone who had staged a scene in one situation would have refused to do so in another, he skirts the issue by arguing, "It seems rather improbable that proud soldiers would have agreed to stage photographs that purported to show their deaths." Tovey (who was in the Spanish Civil War but is curiously absent from Whelan's bibliography) directly contradicts this notion of Whelan, as does my own (and others) research in Spanish newspapers. The doubts I have about the story told by Brotons are based on experiences in Spain but, again, even if this particular individual died on that day, that does not prove that the photograph is of his death.
Your comments about Smith are most interesting. However, I think if you look at the negative strips from "Country Doctor" (Willumson, p. 145), you will find the doctor in a position so awkward that one can only imagine he must have been posing for Smith.
Your anecdote about Bubley is most interesting. As Jean Rouch has argued, setups in and of themselves can be more "real" than "reality" (whatever those two things are).

In sum, I'm sorry if you feel I haven't appreciated these photographers. I assume that these are great photographers, but I am less interested in praising them (or exploiting their private lives as celebrities, which offers a much wider market than critical analysis) than in exploring the place of the documentary genre within modern visual culture.

I much appreciate the time and energy you have invested in this dialogue. Pedro Meyer has expressed an interest in publishing our "conversation" on Zonezero, stating, "The exchange of your correspondence is fantastic. I harbor no doubt as to it's benefit in making it public." I am not sure how you feel about this, but we might consider doing that.

Saludos, John Mraz

John G. Morris, Reply of 7 March 2003

Dear John Mraz,

I do appreciate your serious consideration of my point of view. While we do not entirely agree, I have no objection to the publication of the correspondence, should Pedro Meyer consider it of interest.

Best regards,
John G. Morris, Paris