uire looks through his telescope at the infernal Horse, tho’ he has no need: it struts over us big as a clou

May 29, 2013 § Leave a comment


Lawrence Weschler (LW): Why don’t we start with the first chapter in your new book [Believing is Seeing], in many ways emblematic of all the rest, in which you spend over seventy pages interrogating two photographs taken by Roger Fenton in 1855 of a landscape after a battle in the Crimean War. Early on, you quote your friend Ron Rosenbaum: You mean to tell me that you went all the way to the Crimea because of one sentence written by Susan Sontag?

Errol Morris (EM): Well, actually it was two sentences. She began by claiming that many of the canonical images of early warfare photographs turn out to have been staged, or posed, whatever that might mean. And then she went on to offer, by way of example, the case of Roger Fenton, who “after reaching the much-shelled valley approaching Sebastopol… made two exposures from the same tripod position: in the first version of the celebrated photograph… the cannonballs are thick on the ground to the left of the road, but before taking the second picture—the one that is always reproduced—he oversaw the scattering of cannonballs on the road itself.”

LW: So what bothered you about that?

EM: What upsets me about a lot of writing about photography is that the writer just emotes. The photograph made me feel x, or y, or it made me feel z. Or the photographer must have intended x, y, or z. I have gotten into terrible trouble criticizing both Barthes and Sontag––the sacred cows of photographic theory—but what bothered me about those two sentences of Sontag’s is the suggestion that she knew what Fenton was thinking. I wondered, how does Sontag know that the photograph with the cannonballs on the road, which I will call “ON,” came after the one with the cannonballs off the road, which I will call “OFF”? How does she know that?

LW: And with such absolute authority.

EM: With any kind of authority. That annoyed me.

LW: The thing that’s quite striking to any reader of your book is that it didn’t just annoy you. You went positively ballistic. This question got your juices going all the way to the Crimea! Why?

EM: For a number of reasons. Let’s set ourselves a problem: How much can I learn from a photograph? For example, the issue of which came first, OFF or ON, ON or OFF. Can I establish this? Sontag’s pronouncement seemed to me almost ex cathedra. As if it is obvious. Maybe it is obvious, but it simply wasn’t obvious to me. And so the issue was, could I empirically determine the order of the photographs? I spoke with all sorts of experts, and presently decided that the key might be to go to Crimea the same time of year, find the exact location, and note the shadows at different times of the afternoon, earlier and later, on sample cannonballs I would bring along. As it turns out, my trip to the Crimea did not provide a solution. I find that funny. I mean, traipsing all the way around the world to some godforsaken place did not solve the problem. And the solution came unexpectedly.

LW: How so?

EM: From a friend in the Boston area, Dennis Purcell, who is very skillful at Adobe Photoshop. Essentially he created a flicker box upon which he was able to jump back and forth between OFF and ON.

LW: And the answer turned out not to rely on the cannonballs at all.

EM: Well, there’s the naive thought. The naive thought is that if you’re trying to learn something about the order of the photographs based on the presence or absence of cannonballs on the road, you should be studying the cannonballs. But that in fact turns out to be, I wouldn’t call it an error, but it did not turn out to be part of the solution.

LW: So he instead looks at?

EM: He looks at the rocks on the side of the road; he even gives them names: Fred, Oswald, Marmaduke, Lionel… The presumption of course being that whatever the order, the cannonballs had to be moved by someone. And that perhaps in moving the cannonballs, that person would have nudged adjacent rocks. And in fact you can see a pattern in the movement of the rocks down the slope that does determine the order of the photographs conclusively.

LW: And?

EM: Sontag was right.

LW: Damn.  read more

SCAN: Bollops

A band of dense cumulus massed on the banister

February 11, 2013 § Leave a comment


There are currently no known cures for most autoimmune diseases. They are discussed as chronic conditions that must be in a lifelong process of mitigation through biomedical means. My doctors would plead with me, as I shuffled into their offices with my walker, to take Humira. Biologics are a new class of drugs, barely a decade old, used to treat a few autoimmune conditions. Humira, which carries a black box warning, is an exact clone of a human antibody. It’s a human protein cultivated in the bodies of mice. These biologics function as immune-suppressants, essentially shutting down the body’s immune system to prevent it from attacking itself.

But, left without its defenses, the body becomes vulnerable to fatal cancers, other autoimmune diseases, and opportunistic infections; Humira’s medicine-as-technology counteracted my body’s self-destructive but “natural” behavior. Forget the dualistic mode of thought, in which nothing was wrong with me, but something was wrong with my body. The idea is that I was deficient, and the only way to become the optimal version of myself was to embrace a drug that would make me do no more than function, all for $3,000 a month.

My doctors’ assurance was that I would get well. I would be able to get a job with benefits that would allow me to pay for insurance. Biomedical treatment operates on a capitalist understanding of time. Rather than embracing the regenerative powers of the body, the idea is to get back to work as quickly as possible. It is the body’s radical autonomy that resists commodification. To spite our optimal productivity, it gets sick. Sickness can be masked and treated but the body responds nonetheless. It reacts. It may take longer to recover than is convenient to your boss. We do not have time to get you better. We have time to make you functional.

You are too young to live like this!” became my well-intentioned doctors’ refrain. “What a shame! We can get you back to work! You should be out living your life!” And so, they perpetuated the supposed narrative of health and death: illness is something which comes late in life, right before the end. They acted as if I was experiencing an inconvenience. As if I wasn’t living my life anyway. They didn’t understand that this experience had stripped and shed a light on me, making it simply impossible to carry on as before. There was no return to “normal.”

They often asked me about what I did before I became sick. As if that was me, and this a brief interlude of discomfort. In fact, most discussions in doctors’ offices are about pain or discomfort. These are important issues. Proust wrote, “Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed; to kindness, to knowledge, we make promise only; pain we obey.”

As my life came to be ruled by the sensation of pain, it became impossible to think about anything except the sensation of pain. But pain is only the partial story of the body, a symptom of an underlying problem, whether an injury or a systemic issue. Pain is the body calling out for your attention. I wanted to be healthy again, not simply living without pain. I wanted a medical practice that addresses the true health of the body.

I resisted starting Humira for this very reason. My doctor explained that the way to eliminate the pain and inflammation was to clamp down my overactive immune system. Doing this would prevent it from attacking my joints and my intestines, leaving me pain-free. But it didn’t take care of the underlying problem: my immune system is confused. Eliminating my immune system sounded like a bad—an incomplete—idea.

Most of my friends and family urged me to take what was offered. Even the people that I’d identified or had self-identified as radical or left-leaning were suspiciously unsuspicious of the biomedical industrial complex: that every other industrial complex demanded rigorous scrutiny, but in matters of health and the body, medicine was unmarked and depoliticized.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Lindsey Fast

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