Believing Is Seeing
Observations on the Mysteries of Photography
Selected by The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of the YearAcademy Award-wining filmmaker Errol Morris investigates the hidden truths behind a series of documentary photographs.
A 2011 New York Times Notable Book and Publishers Weekly Best Book 2011
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.
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."
-Michael Roth, The Washington Post
"Morris brings an insatiable and contagious curiosity throughout to the convolutions that arise between art and truth telling."
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"...Morris's book feels less like traditional photography criticism than like the novels of W. G. Sebald, which are similarly obsessed with truth, memory and war. We get odd, absorbing pictures of Mayan ruins, of Picasso and his mistress, of the high heels worn by Morris's tour guide in Crimea: shanks, shoes, a shadow (presumably the photographer's) falling across the once boot-trodden road. Like extra problem sets in a textbook, these photos offer us additional opportunities to practice the art of looking, while simultaneously multiplying the scale of, as Morris's subtitle puts it, 'the mysteries of photography.'"
-New York Times Book Review
"Believing Is Seeing is an important book: It reminds us, at a time when it is remarkably easy to manipulate images and we are daily inundated with more and more of them, to ask: 'What, after all, are we looking at?'"
-Wall Street Journal
"[A]n 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
"...simultaneously bewildering and thrilling, like finding a fathomless secret world hidden behind the seeming simplicity of everyday life."
"Morris' assiduous and profound inquiry into the relationship between reality and photography is eye-opening, mind-expanding, and essential in this age of ubiquitous digital images."
-Booklist (starred review)
"Students of photography-and fans of CSI-will find this a provocative, memorable book..."
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