From Copying to Interpreting

To illustrate this interplay between truth and meaning in documentary film specifically, let’s go all the way back to the beginning; to the invention of the camera in the decades leading up to the turn of the twentieth century. The realization that images could be captured with a machine on photo-sensitive surfaces effectively provoked a partial identity crisis among a group of artists who had previously been in charge of representing reality, the painters. As photography began to replace the practice of painting as a method of portraiture, many painters had to look for a new sense of value in their work.[1] If the machine (the camera) can reproduce what one actually sees in a given scene (landscape, still-life or portrait), then what was the role of the painter? The painters of the late 1800’s were thus forced to embrace the fact that there is more to the artistic enterprise than mere representation.

This arguably gave rise to the impressionistic movement. Artists began painting their scenes from a wildly subjective point of view, often ignoring the reality of light and shadow, perspective and optical principle in favor of distortions or individual interpretations of reality. The idea was that it was the artist’s unique vision that gave the painting value, and not necessarily the ability to faithfully and accurately recreate what a scene looks like to the naked eye. They were, in other words, like Ira Glass, engaged in the uniquely human activity of generating meaning. This movement, from copying to interpreting, happened in the film world as well.

[1] Berger, Ways of Seeing, 17–9.


– from the upcoming book “How to Film the Truth: The Story of Documentary Film As a Spiritual Journey” to be released in the Spring of 2018 by Wipf & Stock