John G. Morris - John Mraz,
November 2002-March 2003.
Morris, Letter of 21 November 2002
Comment on the John Mraz article
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.
- 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."
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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."
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.
- 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
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?"
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
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.
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
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
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).
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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".
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.
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."
fail to see what your statements about Smith have to do with the question
I never alleged that all of Weegee's photos are directed. I mention
two that I believe are.
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.
have no doubt that Salgado and Cartier-Bresson are friends, or that
both admire Gene Smith and Edward Weston.
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
G. Morris, Reply of 23 November 2003
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:
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.
true that Doisneau did stage more than that one photo, but didn't he
do it skillfully?
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
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
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).
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
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.
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
G. Morris, Paris
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
"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:
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.
course Doisneau was skillful. If he hadn't been we wouldn't be talking
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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
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.
John G. Morris, Paris