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The Photographic Time Machine


In the spring of 1907, a Manhattan nickelodeon featured a lecture-stereopticon slide show presented by the journalist and photographer, Jacob Riis. Entitled "The Battle of the Slums", the slides together with Riis's spoken commentary described the wretched lives of New York City's enormous "submerged" population:

"The crowd he drew was not an ordinary nickelodeon crowd: his audience had come to catch a glimpse of the city's poverty-stricken ‘other half' , and the horrors that unfolded on the screen before them startled them more than any film melodrama they may have casually seen as middle-class moviegoers."[1]

Riis's stereo imagery would have been startling, making verbal commentary unnecessary. Does visual imagery have a power words do not, an impression of immediacy, of presence? Errol Morris discussed the issue with Roy Flukinger, a photography specialist at the University of Texas at Austin:

Roy Flukinger: The thing I like about old photographs is that they offer me a different sort of visual, and hopefully, therefore, emotional experience to what I'm looking at that words can't do, or that words can only do part of.

Errol Morris: Something beyond language?

Roy Flukinger: Definitely. There's a whole other level that reaches a person through the eyes.

Errol Morris: How would you describe that other level?

Roy Flukinger: Photography has a certain immediacy - not only in the taking but also at the end of the equation, the presenting of the image to a viewer....If you sit down and really look at these portfolios of prints...you really get a sense of what it must have been like to there....That's the sort of power photography can have....

Errol Morris: The feeling of being there?

Roy Flukinger: At least a better sense of being there..., a better sense of the emotional experience...[2]

1.^Kay Sloan, The Loud Silents: origins of the social problem film, Univ.of Illinois Press, 1988, p. 36.

2.^Errol Morris, "Which Came First(Part Three), The New York Times, 24 October 2007.

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