Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography)

Errol Morris
310pp. Color illustrations throughout
Penguin Press 2011

Reviewed by Leo Hsu

Issue 50

Errol Morris is best known as a documentary filmmaker, and the sensibility that he brings to the essays in Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) is similar to that which characterizes his films. His investigations in both film (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) and writing seek to understand the relationship between narrative and truth: how do we organize reality through the stories we tell and the stories we are told? And what ongoing effects do these stories have? His films deal with uncovering meaning in subjects that are hidden in plain sight (Vernon, Florida) or that are esoteric (Fast Cheap and Out of Control) or that have drawn so much attention as to make it difficult to get past what's been said already (Standard Operating Procedure). Morris, who was a private investigator before he was a filmmaker, recognizes that history can overwhelm memory and experience.

The mysteries in this very readable book concern the ways in which our attention is drawn to photographs, how our expectations are gathered, and how we perceive the promises that pictures make. Morris addresses: photography as evidence; intention and the extent to which different readings can be made from photographs; the posing and staging of pictures, and fakery and propaganda; the ways in which public opinion gathers around photographs; and the different paths that photographs and their subjects travel. These topics have been addressed before, but Morris, in building his investigations, claims them as his own, sidestepping the weight of discourse. Acknowledging, and then setting aside conventional wisdom and accepted explanations, he builds his own investigations.

Morris visits subjects both classic and contemporary, both famous and forgotten. He examines the first icon of photojournalism, "The Valley of the Shadow of Death," Roger Fenton's 1855 image of cannonballs strewn across the road near Sebastopol, in the Crimean War. Two similar images have long been known to exist, one with cannonballs on the road, the other with cannonballs at the side of the road. Was the first photojournalistic image staged? Susan Sontag mentions in Regarding the Pain of Others that Fenton "oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs on the road itself". Morris, uneasy with Sontag’s assumption, travels to the Crimea to see the scene for himself, calling on a series of experts to provide perspective. His journey provides the framework for him to consider what is at stake here, the relationship between photography and reality. His path is unpredictable: along the way he gives individual rocks in the photographs names (i.e. “Marmaduke”) in order to track their movement, he considers the angles of the sun, he shows us his translator’s shoes.

In 1991 James Curtis made a case in Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth that many well-known FSA/ WPA photographs - images that had long been and continue to be seen as exemplars of documentary photography - were in some way staged or stylized for effect. Morris revisits one of Walker Evans' well-known images from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in which an alarm clock not mentioned in James Agee's inventory appears on the mantle. Evans himself noted that his art was in a "documentary style”, though he also stated, “God made that. I wouldn’t change it”. In pulling back the curtain on documentary practice, Curtis opened up the larger question of where documentary authority is really located. Morris goes in to see if he can find more information (What kind of a clock was it? Was it Evans' clock?), to bring to life the circumstances around the making of that photograph, and to understand what the staging of this and other famous pictures might have meant to different people, at different moments.

Is the photograph of a toy next to a bombed building in Lebanon necessarily a pro-Arab statement or is it an anti-war statement, or can it be something else? What happened in Abu Ghraib the night that the famous hooded man photograph was made, why did the MPs there make pictures, and what is concealed in MP Sabrina Harman’s smile? How do the descendants of a soldier killed at Gettysburg, a photograph of his three children clutched in his dead hand, understand their relationship to history through this picture and the very public way in which the dead soldier's story was disseminated? Of Amos Humiston, the Civil War soldier, he writes:

There were two separate searches [for Humiston’s identity], more than a century apart, an initial search to identify the fallen soldier and then a subsequent search to discover something about the man. These investigations sought to answer a series of questions. The first question was: “What is his name?” The second question: “Who is he?” Tell us something about Amos Humiston. And now there is a third question: “Who is he to us? What does he mean to us?” (224)

Believing is Seeing is powerful because Morris’ investigative rambles are couched in specificity and information even as they continuously flirt with doubt. In his efforts to accumulate details, he shows that the truth of a photograph goes far beyond the question of its veracity. Morris demonstrates that photographs can provide a point of focus, from which truth spreads outwards in every direction, as well as forwards and backwards in time. At the same time he shows that knowing what "really happened" does not necessarily lead to an understanding of why an event occurred or what it could mean to any party involved, from the distant historical subjects of photographs to photographers living and dead, to those who have found or created meaning using pictures in their long afterlives. Should we expect more certainty from a photograph than we would from any other account? Morris revels in the fact that, despite our suspicions about whether photographs can hold up their end, we can and we do, in many ways. This is the one of the mysteries of photography: how our stories about our pictures become our own stories.

Picture credit: Bedroom Fireplace, Walker Evans, 1936. Library of Congress