Believing is Seeing, by Errol Morris

This book is a fabulous collection of six essays by Errol Morris, which originally appeared in his New York Times blog. The subtitle of the book, “Observations on the Mysteries of Photography”, nicely summarizes the central theme. The book is lavishly illustrated with reproductions of maps, cartoons, documents, and of course, photographs, and is one of those books that is almost as enjoyable to flip through as it is to read.

The first essay, “Crimean War Essay (Intentions of the Photographer)”, is based on a famous pair of early photographs taken by Roger Fenton during the Crimean war in 1855. One of the photographs, widely reproduced with the title “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”, shows a road winding between two hills, on which dozens of cannonballs lie scattered about, with many more in the ditches on either side. The other photograph, taken from roughly the same vantage point, but with a slightly different contrast, shows a nearly identical scene, but with no cannonballs on the road. Both photographs are conveniently reproduced at the start of the book, as well as several times throughout.

This pair of photographs presents something of a mystery – which came first, and what transpired between the times they were taken? Were the cannonballs intentionally put on the road or taken off? Or did they end up there through some “natural” process? These are all interesting questions. Morris, however, immediately deepens the mystery, beginning with a quote by Susan Sontag from Regarding the Pain of Others.

Not surprisingly, many of the canonical images of early war photography turn out to have been staged, or to have had their subjects tampered with. . . . the cannonballs are thick on the ground to the left of the road, but before taking the second picture – the one that is always reproduced – he [Fenton] oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs on the road itself.

Was one of the photographs staged? What exactly does this mean? And how did Sontag come to have access to this information? Although Sontag does not cite her sources, Morris tracks down a book mentioned in her acknowledgements, The Ultimate Spectacle: A Visual History of the Crimean War, by Ulrich Keller, which contains the following passage: “Not content with the peaceful state of things recorded in the first picture, Fenton obviously rearranged the evidence in order to create a sense of drama and danger that had originally been absent from the scene.” (Italics added by Morris). Here we have not just the same unexplained assertion, that the chronological order of the photographs was OFF then ON, but the additional insinuation that Fenton was duplicitous and perhaps cowardly.

Not content with this explanation, Morris continues to expand the mystery (and eventually untangles it, though I won’t give away the ending here), by interviewing Keller and others, and even going so far as to travel to Crimea and track down the location of the original photographs.

Later essays deal with widely divergent topics which nevertheless converge on a common theme, such as some of the notorious photographs from Abu Ghraib (about which Morris also made a documentary), the dustbowl photography of Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans and others from the 1930s, recent war photography from Lebanon, and the identity of a civil war casualty, who was killed at Gettysburg, carrying nothing to identify him but an ambrotype of three young children.

Part of Morris’ success with this book is that he has excellent and wide ranging research. He is also something of an anthropologist, seamlessly blending interviews, narrative, and personal observations. His real strength, however, is in his ability to take what seems like a small mystery, and reveal many hidden layers of complexity by pulling on all sorts of loose threads and by linking practical matters to much grander philosophical questions.

There are many such questions pursued in this book – the nature of belief, the status of art, our ability to deceive ourselves, and the importance of context. Morris’ main concern, however, is with the epistemological status of the photograph. Ultimately, he suggests, we bring as much to the interpretation of a photograph as it provides to us.

What we see is not independent of our beliefs. Photographs provide evidence, but no shortcuts to reality. It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around.

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