What makes an “honest” photograph—a “true” photograph? Is the medium of photography more factual and authentic than other art forms? What makes a photograph “a fake”? Can a photo be objective or does it always have a point of view? When does a photograph document reality? When is it propaganda? When is it art? Can a single photograph be all of these things simultaneously?
These are some of the questions Academy-Award winning film director and MacArthur fellow Errol Morris tackles in his brilliant book Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography). This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the medium of photography and is one of my favorite publications from 2011.
Morris’s fascination with photography began at a young age. His father died before Morris turned three, so the photographs on display throughout the family’s home were one of his only connections to his father. “In a sense, the photographs both gave me my father and took him away,” Morris explains in the introduction to his book. “Photographs put his images in front of me, but they also acutely reminded me of his absence.”
Morris also reveals that he has limited sight in one eye and lacks normal stereoscopic vision. He blames his bad eye sight on the fact that he refused to wear a patch after surgery for a misaligned eye when he was a boy. In an interesting twist, the man who performed his eye surgery eventually became his stepfather. “My wife Julia calls it a new version of the Oedipus story: my future stepfather blinds me and then marries my mother. If I share anything with Oedipus, it is asking one too many questions.” Is it any wonder Morris is obsessed with the subject of perception?
Believing is Seeing is part detective story, part philosophical meditation. The essays, which originally appeared in a different form on Morris’ blog on the New York Times website, generated a lot of comment and debate when they first appeared, and for good reason. They are fascinating, provocative investigations into the limitations of looking.
To understand a photograph, Morris argues that we must seize on small details as a way of answering larger questions. The case of Roger Fenton is a good case in point. In 1855 the British photographer took two nearly identical photographs of the Valley of the Shadow of Death during the Crimean War. One photo shows a road covered with cannonballs, and the other shows the same road without the cannonballs.
While reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Morris was struck by Sontag’s claim that the famous photograph of the cannonballs on the road was staged and that Fenton “oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs on the road itself.”
Sontag’s assertion about Fenton raises more questions for Morris than it answers. He wonders how Sontag actually knew the sequence of the two images? And why does she suggest “a certain laziness on Fenton’s part, as if he himself couldn’t be bothered picking up or putting down a cannonball but instead supervised or oversaw their placement”? And how can Sontag possibly know what Fenton’s motivations were while he was taking the photograph? Morris goes through remarkable (and humorous) lengths to answer these questions, and even returns to Crimea to see what revelations can be uncovered.
Morris reveals similar complexities in the iconic, Depression-era photographs of Farm Security Administration photographers like Arthur Rothstein and Walker Evans. Morris makes a strong case that Walker Evans rearranged furniture and moved objects when documenting the interior of the Gudger family’s sharecropper cabin. Evans’s images were taken for the FSA and also were included in the landmark book Let us Now Praise Famous Men. Morris scrutinizes James Agee’s household inventory from Let us Now Praise Famous Men and compares it to the corresponding photographs taken by Evans. Morris also examines the sequence of Evans’s images and the placement of objects in each sequential frame.
Some fascinating questions emerge: Why did James Agee list the objects on the Gudger’s mantle in such detail (including small details like a nail file, two large safety pins, and needle and thread), and yet fail to mention the Westclox Fortune No. 10 clock in the center of the mantle?