Tag Archive: christopher morris
Scott and I began sharing pictures with each other when we met at the University of Washington – a practice that ultimately became Dvafoto – and we’ve always been interested in what we call “photo battles”, instances of photographers publishing similar photographs either from the same event or the same place shot years apart. One classic example is the pair of photographs of a boy on a tank in Chechnya taken by James Nachtwey and Christopher Morris in 1996.
We’ve posted a few of these ‘battles’ on Dvafoto over the years but I have to hand it to Time Magazine photo editor Phil Bicker for putting together a fantastic post and gallery of 73 pairs of images from the last year that show off photography déjà vu on the Lightbox blog. Read the whole post 2012: A Year of Déjà Vu for intriguing descriptions (and categorizations) of the different kinds of photographic referencing that take place, from photographers repeating themselves to pure coincidence half a world apart. Bicker also wrote a post in 2011 about photographers who travel together, particularly in war zones, coming up with similar pictures in another great post Two Takes: One Picture, Two Photographers.
Perhaps our contemporary, collective déjà vu is trigged by the news cycle’s constant hunger for images. Photographers, after all, do sometimes document annual events — at the same time and place, year after year— as if nothing at all has ever changed, or ever will change, at that location.
Documentary photography, meanwhile, raises its own breed of déjà vu. Photojournalists often travel together and work side by side at the same event, documenting the same moment—seeing the same things, taking the same pictures. Even when working independently, photographers are not immune to conscious (or subconscious) mirroring, and the 20th century has provided a litany of masters—Cartier-Bresson, Klein, Evans and Frank come to mind—who have influenced entire generations of image makers. After all, we all want to pay homage to our forebears and our heroes. Is it so surprising when, paying tribute, we veer into imitation?
You probably already know Christopher Morris‘ work. One of the founding members of VII, his conflict photography is unparalleled and his recent work on American politics, including the book “My America,” has redefined visual coverage of the White House. You might not know that Morris has been making videos in addition to his still coverage of American politics. Emotionally resonant and forceful, these videos look like none others produced in the 5DMarkII-fueled push toward moving images in photojournalism. The videos resemble Morris’ still work, but their use of music, black and white imagery, and tone make them something altogether different. He’s released four videos, all worth watching:
Christopher Morris recently started a thread on lightstalkers to discuss his videos, and the response was varied. Make sure to read through that thread. The discussion there is interesting and touched on many aspects of Morris’ video work not covered in this interview (if you don’t have a lightstalkers account, email me), and I thought Morris’ videos would be a great subject for one of our periodic interviews here at dvafoto. I was delighted when Morris agreed to the interview. The discussion, conducted over email, is below. Our questions are in bold, followed by Morris’ full responses. If you’re reading on the front page, be sure to click through to the post to see the full interview.
dvafoto: What are you showing us with the videos? When “Dear Leader” first came out, the title (equating Bush with Kim Jong Il) and the tone and the video itself suggested to me a critical portrayal of the previous administration. Now seeing a similar tone in the Obama videos, it strikes me that you aren’t focusing directly on the man in the office, but the office itself and its theater and cultural baggage.
Christopher Morris: I’m showing you what I feel. Each one of these has a very distinct clear meaning for me. As for the viewer? That’s something I’m not quite sure of. This is the beauty of this whole process. They are whatever you want them to be.
I seem to remember you speaking or writing about what would become “My America” as appealing both to the Bush administration’s supporters and detractors. From the same photos, one side saw images of patriotism and strong leadership, while the other saw demagogy, jingoism, and blind, wrong-headed faith in a politician. Have you gotten the same reaction from your videos? From your coverage of Obama? How do you feel about this emotional ambiguity? is it your goal?
Each one of these short films has a distinct meaning for me. I know exactly what I’m trying to convey, what mood and emotion I’m trying to bring out of the viewer in each one of these… The exciting thing about the whole process though… is the emotion that I may want to convey… will actually with some, be the complete opposite or even something that I’ve never even thought of.
Your lightstalkers thread called your videos “experiments,” why are they experiments? Will they become more than an experiment for you? What got you started shooting video? How do you fit in the video shooting with the stills and deadlines? What influenced the style of your videos?
Here I’ll give a short synopsis of each of the Obama works and how they really came about. The first one I did was “The New Leader“. I didn’t wake up and think oh I’m going to make a statement about the Presidency today. It really started as I was sitting in the balcony of Capitol Hill while the President was about to step out to address the Nation on his Health Care Reform. I had been loaned one of the new Canon 7d’ cameras to test the day before. So literally 5 minutes before he came out, I decided to attempt to shoot some video of him at the start. Still images from a balcony 100 feet away of someone walking down the center aisle really do not make for great photography. So why now shoot video instead.. Later the next day when I put the clips into my laptop. I was stunned, with the whole quality and the mood of the images. In the next few day’s the President left for Wall Street to make an address on the Economy in New York. Basically here is a man that is trying to sell the nation on Health Care, the Economy, the War. The urgency of everything. This is what I’ve attempted to convey in “The New Leader” short.
All of this was really just an experiment to test out the 7D. There were and still are many parts that should be edited out. This is why on returning to DC in November, my initial plan was to attempt to record some more clips of the President to re-edit into the film. Then on Veterans Day, Obama was to visit Arlington National Cemetery and deliver a speech. This time using the Canon 5D, I basically shot non-stop from the moment the motorcade left the White House until it returned. Right away during the drive I could sense how visually stunning the motorcade footage was, with the added historical importance of the President’s visit, and that this couldn’t be edited into my earlier video. It would stand on its own ["Obama's Burden"]. What struck me is that roughly 10 cars in front of me is the President in his limousine looking out at the constant and never ending tombstones of our war dead.
And then in December, Obama was to fly to West Point to address the nation on his decision regarding Afghanistan. Hence, “Obama’s War.” The choice of the music here is really interesting. What I do, is while playing one of the clips, I will cycle through some songs to see if anything fits the mood I’m attempting to convey. Having already downloaded some music files from pumpaudio.com, I had something in mind. By mistake I inadvertently played this Russian folklore song called Jolly Talk, by DrevA. For me it was perfect, here was this Russian voice taunting us with her simple words. Taunting us, for now it was our turn to send our young cadets to Afghanistan. The same thing Russian cadets were doing 30 years before. As for the images of the C5A cargo plane, they were shot the same night at an Air Force base near West Point. They are from the window of the helicopter as we taxied for take-off. For me they represented the planes that would carry the young cadets to war. They had almost this coffin like quality to them.
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Worth a Look: “Our World At War” by the photographers of VII and the International Committee of the Red CrossMay 12, 2009 by M. Scott Brauer 3 Comments »
VII and the International Committee of the Red Cross have just unveiled their globe-spanning project documenting current humanitarian crises, “Our World At War.” The work includes: Lebanon by Franco Pagetti, Afghanistan by James Nachtwey, Haiti by Ron Haviv, Caucasus by Antonin Kratochvil, Liberia by Christopher Morris, Colombia by Franco Pagetti, Philippines by James Nachtwey, and Congo by Ron Haviv.
With the next interview in our ongoing series we’re talking to photographer Donald Weber who is based in Eastern Europe and is with the VII Network. You should quickly see why he and I have connected, given our overlapping interests with a certain part of the world. Many of the questions I asked, frankly, were bent to my own personal interest in what it means to move halfway around the world to photograph stories you’re personally passionate about. I’m sure some of you can relate. But more importantly to most of you, he is producing interesting and important work much on his own terms and is rising his profile, and has had an interesting life so far. And has interesting things to say about what he is doing.
Amongst many accomplishments Weber has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lange-Taylor Prize and a World Press Photo award. He was a 2006 winner of the Photolucida Critical Mass review which just published his book Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl (which I previously mentioned here). Before becoming a photographer, he worked as an architect with the world-renowned Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. For his full biography have a look at the about page on his website.
What is your background, in interests and academics? Where do you come from?
Well, Canadian, from Toronto, downtown, which may have influenced my outlook. Taking the subway at 12 years old to school everyday definitely gives an impression on a youngster, glad I was able to see what I did. Anyway, my academic background is not so academic, I studied at an alternative high school that offered an intensive arts education, from the age of 16 until graduation in grade 13, I studied art all day everyday. We had four hours of life drawing two days a week – that would be nudes, thus lots of people were jealous of us, plus an 8 hour day of art history and then we would major and minor in two artistic practices. I wanted to be artist, not really sure what that was or how I would do it, but initially that was my goal. I then went on to study at art college, the Ontario College of Art & Design, where I majored in – I forget the complex phrasing of the subject, something like Art and the Environment. Basically, making massive intrusions into the public landscape. Great! But I totally wasted my time, as far as I’m concerned, education is wasted on the young! It was a conflict in my youth of what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it. I loved the idea of creating something, anything, I didn’t care how as long as I could. Then I had this interest in photography, and in particular photojournalism, which went against all the grains of an artistic education that I was brought up on.
So it was an interesting education, for almost 10 years I was schooled in very sophisticated forms of visual education that certainly influences me to this day. The practicalities may have changed, but the essence of being visual are always the same. Line, shape, form, colour, mood, tone, conceptual processes, etc., are all linked at the very core, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to have had an education that grounded these roots into my young head.
Tell me about your time with architecture.
Well architecture came about rather haphazardly. in order to understand my time within that field, you have to understand first how I ended up there; it’s a rather convoluted process but one that is inherent as to my position today.
Back to my high schooling. As I stated before, I had an interest in both art and photojournalism. My passion, in my final year, was won out with photojournalism. It was in November of that year before graduation where in Canada we make our applications to post secondary institutions. I wanted to apply to two – Rochester Institute of Technology for PJ, and a smaller college just outside of Toronto for a basic three year photography course. I asked my photography (and I quote verbatim the following conversation):
Me: Robert, which school do you think I should apply to? RIT or Sheridan?
Robert (the teacher): What? Why would you apply to either? You suck as a photographer!
Thus, I literally brought my cameras home and put them in a drawer, not to be touched for about 10 years. It was then I decided to find a different path. I replaced photography with ceramics; my mother was not so pleased. Anyway, while studying at OCAD, I developed an interest in architecture, planning and landscape design and was captured by the writings and designs of the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. So, I set my sights on working for him. When I graduated in 1996, I headed overseas to Rotterdam where his practice was based, and promptly got a job, precisely because I was not a trained architect. I worked there for about three years. It was a great experience, but certainly soul crushing. I found architecture to be a rather drab profession and nearly impossible to do anything of interest, save for the exception of Rem Koolhaas and a few others. But I learned about ideas, how to think in a conceptual manner and to find ways to bring those ideas into fruition. It also taught me on more practical levels things about budgeting and planning and just being professional; things I think we take for granted that all go into the realities of being a working photographer.
Anyway, it was not a highlight of my life but I think a necessary step.
What brought you to photography? Was there a specific event that made you say “I am going to be a photographer”?
Yes, very specific event! My whole life has these cascading elements that when all put together certainly illuminate what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I was born in 1973, thus when the events of the late 80′s and early 90′s came around, I was at the ripe age to start taking notice. For me, these were the most historical and important times of my generation. The collapse of communism, the events in Tiananmen Square, the first Iraq War. These were all events that were shaped and played out in magazines and television. I was a teenager and just discovering more than my backyard, it was an awakening physically, mentally, socially, everything, for me. I remember clearly watching hundreds of thousands of Eastern European refugees fleeing their countries for elsewhere, the Wall collapsing, the Ceaucescu’s being executed, Boris Yeltsin on top of a tank. All these events were seared into my mind, and those events shaped what I wanted to do with my life. I had always been aware of news images, but never before did I connect that somebody actually went out there and made those pictures until I was older. It was a massive lightbulb that went off and I wanted to be a part of it.
Anyway, that was event number one. The second event was my diversion to architecture for awhile; I listened to closely what my high school teacher had to say; never again! Anyway, it was while I was living in Europe that I remembered what photography was all about. I wanted to remember living in Europe, so I bought a camera – it was great! I couldn’t put it down, all I did was take photos. Crappy, but they were photos. It was then that I said okay – I’m going to be a photographer – but how was a much more difficult question. It wasn’t until March of 2000, a few days before I was to leave on a year long trip to ride my motorcycle across Africa (something I had previously done in 1998) where the jump was finally made. I had just quit my job as an architect, not really knowing what to do. I was taking the bike out for one last tune up spin when I got hit by a car. I just remember sliding across the hood of some old Chevy, sliding on my back seeing my crumpled bike and thinking, okay, now’s the time to be a photographer. So I never did the bike trip to Africa; I “became” a photographer. That summer I got an internship at the Toronto Sun, a tabloid.
What were your early interests as a photographer? Influences?
I don’t really know, for me it was such a long battle to finally start taking pictures that influences and interests were a secondary thought! But, as a teenager, photojournalism was a very powerful force in me. I remember Kenneth Jarecke’s burned Iraqi soldier from the first Iraq War, Chris Morris’ Panama photos, Don McCullin – it was important because what they were photographing was important – and that was important to me! So I’d say my interests were in the realm that photography could act as a document; the total opposite of my art education. to me art had become superfluous, something dilettantes dabbled in; it had lost it’s meaning. Photography was the opposite. As I grew, my more literal influences was the photographer Raymond Depardon, still is. To me he has managed to encapsulate perfectly what a photographer is and should be. Bridge influences and ideas from all facets and present them in his own manner. That is something I strive to do, to take what I see but also to take what I feel and make my own story of it.
My interests are always morphing; there was a time when I thought Chris Morris could do no wrong (still do). But my art training definitely influenced me in the way I see; not what I see, but how I interpret that. I used to really enjoy the old masters and specifically religious paintings of the 15 – 17 centuries. So much blood, red, white, gold, colour, pain; totally terrified me.
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In in a thread over at Lightstalkers thanking people for their comments on his (remarkable) video The Dear Leader, Christopher Morris mentioned that he has a new video out (and, probably, more to come as he just finished a two-week video roadtrip around the US). It is a bit more rough than the Dear Leader film, focused on the last days of the John McCain Presidential campaign. And, for those interested, he said it was shot on the new Canon 5d MkII (see the thread for more info)
Morris definitely has me more interested in trying video, as a different way of expressing something.. anyone want to lend me a MkII?
Time magazine has published a number of photo essays on its website covering the final days of both Barack Obama and John McCain’s presidential campaigns. Christopher Morris brings his signature style to John McCain’s Final Push and John McCain’s Long Distance Campaign. Callie Shell, likewise, has Barack Obama Hits the Homestretch and The Campaign from Obama’s View.
Both photographers have been covering these candidates since very early in the campaign. Shell’s work following the Obama campaign was recently published and discussed on Digital Journalist. The essay has made the jump to non-photo-related websites and has been mentioned all over the internet as a great glimpse into the life of a candidate in a media climate where such access is almost impossible to get. A particularly long thread over at Metafilter discusses the work. I love non-photographers’ discussion of photography because it’s one of the few ways a photographer can learn how their work is intrepreted by the thousands or millions of eyes that see it. A side note: one commentor’s statement that “It must be a law of the internet that all photography sites must have different but equally unusable interfaces,” strikes me as particularly true.
Christopher Morris’ has been photographing McCain since 2000, but with Digital Railroad’s recent problems, the VII archive is broken. A recent collection of the work can be seen here on the main VII site.
While we’re on the subject, Susan Raab made a thoughtful post about the effect caused in the viewer by the subject of the photos. Particularly, she notes plenty of praise for photos of Obama and relatively little or no praise for photos of McCain. Surely Morris’ or Stephen Crowley’s coverage of McCain for the NYTimes is of a comparable level of Shell’s (or at least others’) work on Obama…
UPDATE by Scott: I just found a link to some more Stephen Crowley work at Digital Journalist called Covering the “No Talk Express,” in which he laments the difficulty journalists have had getting access to McCain and Palin in recent weeks. Lauren Greenfield also recently covered the McCain-Palin campaign for the NYT Magazine and has a photo or two showing this lack of access. Don’t miss the picture of the journalist sleeping next to cardboard cut-outs of the two candidates.
Just stumbled upon the new issue of Gary Knight (et.al.)’s newish magazine rethink-dispatches titled Beyond Iraq. In a nice twist for us here at ДваФото (dvafoto .. meaning ‘two pictures’ in Russian) the brilliant and enlightening main photo essay for this issue was done by Russian Noor photographer Yuri Kozyrev and is titled, in Cyrillic script, Ирак. (that is, for you english speakers, Iraq).
I’ve yet to see a physical copy of the magazine (cannot wait to .. saving my pennies for a subscription) but the content online is first-rate and innovative. If you haven’t spent any time there, start digging in to the smart essays, editorials, multimedia pieces and of course the photo essays. Their first issue, Beyond America, featured a great essay titled “In God’s Country” by Antonin Kratochvil.
Further, I must implore you to look Christopher Morris’ multimedia piece that showed up on rethink-dispatches a week or two ago: “The Dear Leader”. Scathing and timely, investigating further (I assume you know his book My America) the (cult of) personality and insulation of US President George W. Bush. Fascinating cross over for a photographer in to documentary film making. It also generated some interesting discussion over at lightstalkers.