Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography

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Overview

Selected by The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of the Year Academy Award-wining filmmaker Errol Morris investigates the hidden truths behind a series of documentary photographs.

In Believing Is Seeing Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris turns his eye to the nature of truth in photography. In his inimitable style, Morris untangles the mysteries behind an eclectic range of documentary photographs, from the ambrotype of three children found clasped in the ...

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Overview

Selected by The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of the Year Academy Award-wining filmmaker Errol Morris investigates the hidden truths behind a series of documentary photographs.

In Believing Is Seeing Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris turns his eye to the nature of truth in photography. In his inimitable style, Morris untangles the mysteries behind an eclectic range of documentary photographs, from the ambrotype of three children found clasped in the hands of an unknown soldier at Gettysburg to the indelible portraits of the WPA photography project. Each essay in the book presents the reader with a conundrum and investigates the relationship between photographs and the real world they supposedly record.

During the Crimean War, Roger Fenton took two nearly identical photographs of the Valley of the Shadow of Death-one of a road covered with cannonballs, the other of the same road without cannonballs. Susan Sontag later claimed that Fenton posed the first photograph, prompting Morris to return to Crimea to investigate. Can we recover the truth behind Fenton's intentions in a photograph taken 150 years ago?

In the midst of the Great Depression and one of the worst droughts on record, FDR's Farm Service Administration sent several photographers, including Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans, to document rural poverty. When Rothstein was discovered to have moved the cow skull in his now-iconic photograph, fiscal conservatives-furious over taxpayer money funding an artistic project-claimed the photographs were liberal propaganda. What is the difference between journalistic evidence, fine art, and staged propaganda?

During the Israeli-Lebanese war in 2006, no fewer than four different photojournalists took photographs in Beirut of toys lying in the rubble of bombings, provoking accusations of posing and anti-Israeli bias at the news organizations. Why were there so many similar photographs? And were the accusers objecting to the photos themselves or to the conclusions readers drew from them?

With his keen sense of irony, skepticism, and humor, Morris reveals in these and many other investigations how photographs can obscure as much as they reveal and how what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Part detective story, part philosophical meditation, Believing Is Seeing is a highly original exploration of photography and perception from one of America's most provocative observers.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Morris (Fog of War) offers a collection of fascinating investigative essays on documentary photography and its relation to reality. Arguing that photographs conceal as much as they reveal, Morris revisits historical but still passionately alive controversies (like accusations of photographers working for the Depression-era Farm Security Administration staging scenes) as well as contemporary ones (newswire photos of children's toys, for instance, shot among the rubble of Israel-bombed southern Lebanon). Indeed, one chapter expands on the filmmaker's own Standard Operating Procedure (2008), a documentary examining the Abu Ghraib scandal through an interrogation of its now iconic photographs. Morris begins with a brilliant opening chapter—a template and touchstone for what follows, a case study in the history of documentary photography: Roger Fenton's two 1855 images of The Valley of the Shadow of Death, a road near the front lines of the Crimean War. The gripping account tacitly puts Morris—as well as his various assistants and interlocutors—in the plot of a detective novel, with the author a kind of Hercule Poirot of the photographic world. While not covering new ground everywhere he goes—although his literal retracing of old ground in the case of The Valley of the Shadow of Death leads to surprising revelations—Morris brings an insatiable and contagious curiosity throughout to the convolutions that arise between art and truth telling. (Sept.)
Michael Roth
Like Arbus, Morris knows that photographs gratify some of our deep cravings, but also that they also never fully satisfy. A photograph "partially takes us outside ourselves" and "gives us a glimpse . . . of something real." This is a key part of what Arbus and Morris are both after.
Washington Post
Reed Johnson
At its core, though, "Believing Is Seeing" is an elegantly conceived and ingeniously constructed work of cultural psycho-anthropology wrapped around a warning about the dangers of drawing inferences about the motives of photographers based on the split-second snapshots of life that they present to us. It's also a cautionary lesson for navigating a world in which, more and more, we fashion our notions of truth from the flickering apparitions dancing before our eyes.
Los Angeles Times
-Michael Roth
"Morris's book is beautifully designed, underscoring that visual evidence has its own texture, its own feel. Like Arbus, Morris knows that photographs gratify some of our deep cravings, but also that they also never fully satisfy. A photograph "partially takes us outside ourselves" and "gives us a glimpse . . . of something real." This is a key part of what Arbus and Morris are both after.
Photography's preservation of traces of the past offers the possibility that "we too can be saved from oblivion by an image that reaches beyond our lives." By paying such close and caring attention to traces of the past, Morris greatly increases the possibility of their living on. He shows us what it means to do the hard work of saving memories from oblivion."
Library Journal
Oscar-winning filmmaker (The Fog of War) Morris investigates well-known images to examine the nature of truth in photography. He chooses images from four different wars (the Crimean War, the Civil War, the Iraq War, and the Israeli-Lebanese war) as well as photographs from the Farm Service Administration and the Works Progress Administration taken during and after the Great Depression. He approaches each photographic mystery as a forensic scientist would, performing exhaustive research, consulting historical and scientific experts, traveling to the sites where the photographs were made, and conducting experiments with exposure and lighting. What Morris reveals is that regardless of an image's historical data or metadata, inherently complex theoretical issues of intention, concealment, and revelation will always exist. VERDICT Although the research is serious, extremely thorough, and extensively detailed, Morris's writing style is accessible and enjoyable. Originally published as individual essays in the New York Times, this book is destined to become a classic in photo theory. Recommended for undergraduate and graduate photography and art history collections. [See Prepub Alert, 11/29/10.]—Shauna Frischkorn, Millersville Univ., PA
Kirkus Reviews

Master documentarian Morris serves up an erudite, sometimes recondite examination of the power of photographs to conceal as much as they reveal.

The author, known for films such asThe Thin Blue LineandThe Fog of War, is a truth-teller, skilled at using filmic and photographic evidence to reveal truth and innocence. Here he interrogates the truth—or not—of images iconic and scarcely known, beginning with a long and sometimes dauntingly technical disquisition on a brace of photographs taken in the Crimean War following the vaunted Charge of the Light Brigade. In one image, cannonballs lie neatly arranged along the side of the road along which the attack occurred; in another, the cannonballs are strewn about as if they had fallen there. Did the British photographer move the cannonballs to heighten the drama of the image, or did British engineers clean up the road so that equipment could pass? In other words, which image came first? Doggedly, Morris traveled to Crimea to find the site and puzzle over the position of the sun to answer those questions. The cross-examination is leisurely, methodical, sometimes even plodding, but there's a purpose to the slow establishment of forensic fact, since Morris then moves on to more recent—and certainly controversial—photographs taken at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Readers will remember the smiling thumbs-up over corpses, the damaged fellow standing wired as if ready to be crucified. So does Morris, who insists, "The photographs are the start of a trail of evidence, butnotthe end...We shouldn't allow what happened at Abu Ghraib to disappear except for a smile." Along the way, the author gets in a few digs at theoreticians of photography, taking genteel issue with the arid Susan Sontag/Roland Barthes school of interpretation. But mostly he sticks to what he sees before him, and not on what others have seen and said.

Students of photography—and fans ofCSI—will find this a provocative, memorable book.

Kathryn Schulz
Believing Is Seeing, though perceptive about photography, is fundamentally concerned with something very different: epistemology. Morris is chiefly interested in the nature of knowledge, in figuring out where the truth—in both senses—lies…It is impossible to read Believing Is Seeing without the word "obsessive" coming to mind. Happily, this thematic narrowness is counterbalanced by a stylistic tendency in the opposite direction—namely, toward the tangential and panoptic. The combined effect is weird and mesmerizing, like a blizzard falling on a single house.
—The New York Times
Michael Roth
Facts matter to Morris, as he proves by doing basic detective work. He engages in archival research, he interviews experts, and he presses skeptically against theories and assumptions. He prides himself on "a combination of the prurient with the pedantic," and the mixture works just as well in this book as it does in his films…[the] book is beautifully designed, underscoring that visual evidence has its own texture, its own feel.
—The Washington Post
The Barnes & Noble Review

At the beginning of Believing Is Seeing, an eye-opening book about how images come to have meaning, MacArthur-winning filmmaker Errol Morris reveals that he's got a strabismus, a condition that misaligns his sight. Two eye images that normally resolve into one unified field of vision are always, for him, slightly separate. For Morris, who literally sees "both ways," sight is never simple. He uses his condition as a jumping-off point for a nuanced exploration of how photographs — especially those we most entrust with showing us truths - - simultaneously reveal and conceal. Commenting on now-iconic photographs of soldiers and torture victims at Abu Ghraib, The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh wrote that "the photographs tell it all." But what, asks Morris, are the "it" and the "all"? How is the telling done?

Those who have had the luck to fall under the spell of Errol Morris's films already know what sidelong worlds he documents. Gates of Heaven, a classic from the late 1970s, takes on the subject of pet cemeteries, exploring the odd business of interring our beloved furry dead through the experience of a family that not only runs a pet cemetery but also buries its own deceased pets there. The Thin Blue Line, a study in the fragility of human justice, re-enacts a Texas murder case that led to the wrong man spending twelve years in jail. And in the recent The Fog of War, Morris talks to Robert McNamara about the decisions he made as secretary of defense during the Vietnam War. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2003.

In each film, Morris displays his genius for allowing people to reveal themselves in haunting and muddy complexity. Something as seemingly kooky as watching a family-run pet burial business turns into a profound meditation on the human search for meaning. Morris manages to take people's banalities, pedantries, and prejudices and turn them into art. And he does so with a master's touch: Just at the very moment I think I might be bored I find, to my surprise, that I'm actually utterly fascinated.

In this way, Morris can get away with projects that most of us would simply censor ourselves from undertaking. Who else can go to a dusty road in Ukraine to retrace an impossible-to-solve mystery about the placement of cannonballs during a harrowing but largely forgotten episode of the Crimean War, and then write a sixty-six-page essay about it? I admit to having forgotten that there even was a Crimean War, but soon I was at the edge of my seat, wondering whether or not the photographer Roger Fenton, one of the world's first correspondents to document war with a camera, moved cannonballs onto the dusty road or removed them from it. Would Morris, 160-odd years later, figure it out? In this book, Morris the filmmaker transforms himself into Morris the self-documenting essayist par excellence. He turns the cameras and the pen on his own exploits with the same precise scrutiny and baffled wonder he's brought to his other subjects. Morris doesn't find his pursuit of possibly moved cannonballs any more or less strange than someone else's pursuit of canine cremation, and this open ability simply to look hard is a huge part of his charm.

True to form, Morris is pedantic-but-fascinating in Ukraine. The chapter, like those that follow, is shot through with images, graphs, and painstakingly transcribed conversations. The essay about Ukraine goes as far as mapping and graphing the sun's arc on the day of the battle in question. Yet all this cannonball sleuthing is a clever way of elaborating his central question: What is a document? Who makes it? What message does it contain? What politics does it imply? How is it read? What truth does it transmit?

Morris asks us to ask ourselves: Does it matter if Roger Fenton staged the cannonballs? If so, how and why? Roger Fenton and the far-off Crimean War may seem amusingly arcane, but just before we settle into the abstracted comforts of academic study, Morris charges forward to another set of misunderstood pictures, this time from Abu Ghraib, a place where torture was happening and photographs documented it. This time our questions of truth in imagery feel pressingly moral. What does it mean that the iconic picture of the hooded man we see as our image of that torture is not really the man The New York Times claimed he was? What does it mean that Sabrina Harman was caught giving a "thumbs-up" and grinning in front of a corpse? Those awful images have become icons — ways that we both remember and then allow ourselves to forget something intensely painful. But Morris opens up the image, showing us that the commonplaces we think we understand from the photographs of those terrible events are also often off target. Again and again, this remarkable book by a maker of images is actually an invective against believing too easily in images as proof, a plea instead to think of images as manufactured. "Vision is privileged in our society and our sensorium," Morris writes. "Photography allows us to uncritically think. We imagine that photographs provide a magic path to the truth." And yet, as Morris, shows us with magic of his own, that path and that truth can always be seen a different way, though another lens, or story, or eye.

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a collection of poems. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.

Reviewer: Tess Taylor

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594203015
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/1/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 797,646
  • Product dimensions: 7.60 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Errol Morris is a world-renowned filmmaker-the Academy Award- winning director of The Fog of War and the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Award. His other films include Standard Operating Procedure; Mr. Death; Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control; A Brief History of Time; and The Thin Blue Line.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 29, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Not everything we see is real!

    In Believing Is Seeing Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris turns his eye to the nature of truth in photography.

    During the Crimean War, Roger Fenton took two nearly identical photographs of the Valley of the Shadow of Death-one of a road covered with cannonballs, the other of the same road without cannonballs. Susan Sontag later claimed that Fenton posed the first photograph, prompting Morris to return to Crimea to investigate. Can we recover the truth behind Fenton's intentions in a photograph taken 150 years ago?

    In the midst of the Great Depression and one of the worst droughts on record, FDR's Farm Service Administration sent several photographers, including Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans, to document rural poverty. When Rothstein was discovered to have moved the cow skull in his now-iconic photograph, fiscal conservatives-furious over taxpayer money funding an artistic project-claimed the photographs were liberal propaganda. What is the difference between journalistic evidence, fine art, and staged propaganda?

    During the Israeli-Lebanese war in 2006, no fewer than four different photojournalists took photographs in Beirut of toys lying in the rubble of bombings, provoking accusations of posing and anti-Israeli bias at the news organizations. Why were there so many similar photographs? And were the accusers objecting to the photos themselves or to the conclusions readers drew from them?

    My Review:

    For most people who look at articles in the newspapers, magazines or even books, when a picture accompanies them we are often looking at that picture and forming an opinion. Hand in hand with whatever the article states, we may buy into the story because what is being written about and what the picture show make a match in our brain. However what Errol Morris does in the book, Believing Is Seeing, is show a picture with the proposed article and how at times in history, they have been made to appear as though they were real, when in fact they were an image created to tie into the story.

    These are created to help influence what we read and what we see, so that the audience is more prone to believe it based not just on what they read but also what they see, even though at times the images are created and not really what is happening.

    Errol Morris uses many such examples of photos with one being a cow skull show over a dry and cracked land. In the article that accompanied the picture, the reader was made to believe that this photo was taken to show what was happening in the Dust Bowl era in order to get people to buy into Franklin Roosevelt's programs to aid the farmers even though the photo was staged.

    I received this book compliments of TLC Book Tours for my honest review and found the book an interesting read. Its hard to imagine that this type of marketing happens to use photos to pull at the emotional heart strings of people, but if it works, they will use it. Many such examples are shown through the book along with commentaries explaining how it was used. I would rate this a 4.5 out of 5 stars.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted March 2, 2015

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