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?
Was the object Walker Evans’s own personal travel clock? Did Evans add the alarm clock to the mantle to improve the composition of his image? Did he give the clock to Mr. Gudger, or did the clock belong to the family already? If so, why would the clock be placed on the mantle after Agee made his household inventory? It is a small detail, but one that strikes right to the heart of documentary photography.
Arthur Rothstein’s iconic 1936 photograph of a cow skull in a South Dakota drought is another intriguing case. The photo spawned accusations of “fakery” and “skullduggery” when the press discovered the same cow skull in different photographs taken by Rothstein.
In response, the FSA claimed that Rothstein had moved the skull less than ten feet while taking the picture. Investigating the matter further, the Chicago Daily Tribune claimed that the cow had likely died of old age in a winter blizzard, and not from the result of drought: “As an exhibit of the effect of the drought in western North Dakota it is clearly a fake,” wrote the paper.
But, as Morris asks, do these revelations about the skull nullify the existence of the drought?
“The Dakotas were experiencing a severe drought. One of the worst droughts in American history. Was the real issue that the cow had died of old age rather than drought? Or that the cow skull had been moved less than ten feet, as the FSA claimed? Or had been moved at all? Or that multiple photographs had been taken? Or was it merely an attempt to shift the nature of the debate from the agricultural problems facing the country to an argument about photography and propaganda?”
The well-known photo of Sabrina Harman standing over a dead, battered Iraqi man is misleading. Anyone who sees the below image will assume that Harman is the killer. The New York Post perpetuated this impression by publishing Harman’s photograph next to the giant headline “The Ghoul Next Door Was Jail Abuse Fotog.” But as Morris shows, “Photographs reveal and they conceal.”
“The photograph of Sabrina smiling over al-Jamadi’s body both reveals his death and conceals his killer. We know about al-Jamadi’s death because of Sabrina Harman. Without her photographs, his death would likely have been covered up by the CIA and by the military. Sabrina didn’t murder al-Jamadi. Nor did she try to conceal his death. She provided evidence of a crime, evidence that this was no heart attack victim. She took photographs to show that, as she put it, ‘the whole military is nothing but lies,’ or at the very least, to show that she had been lied to by her commanding officer.'”
In a lecture Morris gave at the Harvard Bookstore, he quotes part of a letter Sabrina Harman sent home after the photographs were taken:
“Yes, they do beat the prisoners up, and I’ve written this to you before. I just don’t think it’s right and never have that’s why I take the pictures, to prove the story I tell people. No one would ever believe the shit that goes on. No one. The dead guy didn’t bother me, I even took a picture with him doing the thumb’s up. But that’s when I realized it wasn’t funny anymore, that this guy had blood in his nose. I didn’t even have to check his ears and I already knew it was not a heart attack they claimed he died of. He bled to death from some cause of trauma to his head. I was told when they took him out, they put an IV in him and put him on a stretcher like he was alive to fool the people around. They said the autopsy came back heart attack. It’s a lie. The whole military is nothing but lies. They cover up too much. This guy was never even in our prison. That’s the story. The f*$#ed up thing was we never touched this guy. As soon as they released him to us, he died only a few minutes later. If I want to keep taking pictures of those events, I even have short films, I have to fake a smile every time. I hope I don’t get into trouble for something I haven’t done. I’m going to try to burn those pictures and send them out to you while I’m in Kuwait. Just in case.”
“We have forgotten that photographs are connected to the physical world,” Morris says. “All photographs are posed.” All images are “neither true or false.” As Morris shows, every image contains absence. Something is ALWAYS left out of the frame. A photograph is a 2-D snapshop “torn out of the reality of the world.” Iconic photographs have such power both individually and within our larger culture that we often forget or ignore these complexities. Morris argues that we should all be more curious about what we’re actually looking at.
“Photographs attract false beliefs the way flypaper attracts flies. Why my skepticism? Because vision is privileged in our society and our sensorium. We trust it we place out confidence in it. Photography allows us to uncritically think. We imagine that photographs provide a magic path to the truth.”
“What’s more, photographs allow us to think we know more than we really do. We can imagine a context that isn’t really there…. With the advent of photography, images were torn free form the world, snatched from the fabric of reality, and enshrined as separate entities. They became more like dreams. It is no wonder that we really don’t know how to deal with them.”
Critical treatises on the meaning of photography are too often jargon-ridden and humorless. Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) is a notable exception.
Errol Morris is the rare writer who can be both insightful and entertaining. Morris’s curiosity is infectious. In both his films and in this book, he masterfully uncovers stories hidden beneath other stories. If his riveting, provocative book doesn’t change the way you think about photography, then I suspect nothing will.
“There is no correct way to take photographs or to make documentary films, or for that matter to write books,” says Morris. “It’s not about correct and incorrect. Truth is something that you seek in what you do. You strive to understand the world around you but it’s not guaranteed by style. Using available light or a hand held camera doesn’t make your work any more truthful than anybody else’s work.”