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A conversation with Nubar Alexanian

A conversation with Nubar Alexanian about his book Nonfiction: Photographs from the film sets of Errol Morris, Walker Creek Press, 2007.

Nubar Alexanian

NA: In 1992, I was asked by The New York Times to do a photo portrait of Errol Morris for a piece Phillip Gourevitch was writing about him. This was after the release of Errol's film A Brief History of Time. We got along well, and he asked if I would shoot stills for the film he was working on, Fast Cheap & Out of Control. I said I couldn't because I wasn't really cut out to do production stills. Errol said no, that not what he was asking. He just wanted me to come on the set and shoot whatever I wanted. Then I'll cut your pictures into my film. This sounded very cool.

So I starting showing up on his sets and shot what ever I found interesting, including Errol himself. Naturally I was always in the way. On a film set you never have real permission, the kind of freedom you need as a photojournalist. But with Errol I could go wherever I wanted and it got more and more interesting photographically.

The AD's job (assistant director) on a film set is to keep things moving along, and who ever it was, they would inevitably complain and say: Errol isn't there something we can do about this still photographer? He's always in the way and slowing us down. Errol would often give the same reply: I wish there was something I could do about him. If you have any suggestions at all I would really appreciate it. I don't know what to do with him. This was Errol's way of letting them know that I had his permission to go and do whatever I needed to do.

In the end, Errol could not figure out how to use my images in Fast Cheap & Out of Control. But we continued to work together. I worked on all his subsequent films except for the McNamara movie.

DL: The next thing you worked on was the Mr.Death film.

NA: Mr.Death, that's right.

DL: Half the photographs in the book are from Standard Operating Procedure, Errol's last film.

NA: That's interesting. After fifteen years of photographing nearly half the book comes from five days work on a set in LA (not including the portraits of the soldiers). There are pictures everywhere on an Errol Morris set, around every corner. So much so, that it took me a while to understand that Errol's films are really about what people say and how they say it. They are about language.

DL: The films of Fredrick Wiseman are like that. Wiseman controlled the boom mike not the camera, the realism is in effect in the way people speak, in an everyday speech mode you almost never hear in movies or on TV.

NA: That's the thing about Errol. Errol can somehow get people to talk. When he interviewed Genreal Janis Karpinski about what happened at Abu Ghraib prison, she talked with him for two days in front of the camera. Errol always starts an interview with the same sentence: I don't know where to begin and people just start to talk.

My pictures from Standard Operating Procedure are either from the re-enactments, which are true in the sense that they're accurate, or they are portraits of one kind or another. There was actually a guy on set who was an expert in torture. (He's in the next to the last picture.) In addition to being an actor, I believe it was his job to make sure that everything was done accurately. That's why the book is called Nonfiction.

DL: I do have the impression Errol is a very skillful interviewer.

NA: It is an incredible art form. You have to have to be very patience. I know that Errol is always very well prepared, but he never has questions written out. Someone asked him why, and he said, cause I don't know what they're going to say.

DL: The re-enactment, if we can come back to that, is of course not marginal to what cinema is. The very first film shot by the Lumieres of the workers leaving their factory in Lyon, supposedly pure, unrehearsed, un-staged movie action, was in fact a re-enactment of the end of a working day...One of the things in the book is that you do not make much distinction between actual people like Fred Leuchter Jr., Dr.Death, and the performers in the re-enactments.

NA: I have to say that as a documentary photographer I was not a different photographer on Errol Morris's sets than if I was out doing a picture essay about children living in poverty for The New York Times Magazine. In other words, if you see Leutcher testing the electric chair in the Nashville State Penitentiary it's as if he's actually doing it, because he is! He's doing it for Errol's camera, and I'm shooting it. There are different kinds of documentary photographs. Mine really happen to be about my experience of what's in front of my camera. So they're somewhat first person.

You can see this in the picture of the guy getting a lethal injection. He's lying down on the gurney, and it's a horrifying image. It doesn't matter whether you know that he's a crew member and that it's not actually happening. I found the whole experience horrifying. Would I have been more horrified if it was actually happening? Absolutely, of course. But I'm also horrified by the very existence of it, by the very fact of it.

Much of the tension in the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) pictures comes from their beauty. They're beautifully lit and beautifully shot. I give all kinds of hints that they are re-enactments. But I'm still horrified by the very idea of a guy being held down, head first in a 50 gallon drum of water until he actually believes he's going to drown to death. Because of the nature of these images, I had to learn how to talk about them as documentary images. I was getting questions I had never gotten before.

DL: Such as?

NA: That they're not real, that they're just movie stills. The audience tries to define them in their own way, based on their own experience. But I feel that what I ended up with is a series of images based on re-enactments that accurately describe the kinds of torture that were done in our name, as citizens.

DL: Which is what you would have gotten if you'd actually had been there.

NA: At the Corcoran Gallery, something like twenty thousand people saw these photographs. And it's right across the street from the White House. You know we always want to have some impact if we can. It's odd to see these pictures in a gallery. The prints are so beautiful, especially in a gallery setting, and this makes the tension even more acute.

DL: The description of each picture is at the end of the book. Why not on the page with the print?

NA: This is my fifth book and the first time I haven't placed a caption below each picture. I didn't want people to know right away which pictures were re-enactments and which were not. I didn't want to create a context for the images outside of what they describe.

This is also a book about what a documentary picture is and is not, or can and cannot be. If people look at the guy on the gurney and experience it as real and are horrified, that's what the picture is really about. What's amazing to me, and the thing I love most about a photograph, is that there's never any context, like in film. Context for still photographs comes from captions, or from the relationship of one image to another, like in a book or even a gallery show. When you minimize context, the audience gets their meaning from what they bring to it, what they expect from it, rather than what's written below it. The magic of photography is that the picture, on its own, does not immediately reveal itself.

I never crop my pictures and I try to a make the strongest possible picture, getting as much going on as I can in a single frame.

DL: I looked at the pictures in your book the other evening with the music of Steve Reich on the CD player, which is a terrific sound track for those images. Don't mention this to Errol, but it was even better than Phillip Glass.

NA: He might agree!

DL: How has the book been doing?

NA: Very well. Thanks.

06-08-2008

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