Errol Morris is an Academy Award-winning director. His new book investigates the nature of truth in photography, and the limitations of vision. Ironically, Morris himself confesses to having limited sight in one eye.
Morris selects famous, even infamous, examples of photography across two centuries and analyzes the history behind the creation of the images, and what the images mean. The photographs are political-- with one exception, they are wartime images. Many of these I have seen countless times in textbooks, and had drawn easy conclusions about their meaning : these include a photo set (1855) with cannonballs by Roger Fenton shot during the Crimean War; the images at Abu Ghraib (2004), where Morris presents compelling interpretations of body language for what constitutes a “real” smile versus a fake one; photographs taken during the Depression by Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein; pictures of children’s toys amidst rubble after Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon (2006); and an ambrotype of three children that was found in the hand of a dead Union soldier at Gettysburg (1863).
Believing Is Seeing includes photographs, some tangentially related to the discussion. Morris presents compelling research about the photographs (who took them, why), and includes dialogues with archivists and historians he visited around the globe. Morris uncovers possible staging within the images of people and objects in the photographs. Following his meticulous questioning, I was surprised by what I thought I had “seen” and what I now saw in these images.
Morris not only defends the use of such staging techniques, but also suggests that we can never wholly avoid them. A review in the NY Times notes that Morris himself has paid a price for “posing.” In 1989, he was passed over for an Oscar nomination for The Thin Blue Line (1988) because of his use of recreations that conflicted with Academy standards for documentaries. In 2004, he finally won an Oscar, for The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara.
Before his filmmaking career took off, Morris had a day job as a detective, and he urges us to read these essays “as a collection of mystery stories.” Like ¬Sherlock Holmes, Morris believes that truth can be revealed by attending to details overlooked or misinterpreted by others.
An interesting detail he includes in a discussion with David Humiston Kelley, an expert on archaeoastronomy, is about the Maya prediction that the world will end on December 21, 2012. Kelley says this is based on “a false assumption.” The Maya are 208 years too early—the correct date is December 21, 2220. You’ll have to read the interview to make sense of it.
What I especially enjoyed was following Morris’s thinking and detective work, and his ability to fly to any location and speak with the best scholars.
Last, I will put in a good word for a documentary (or is it fiction?) by Morris called Vernon, Florida. It is quite a weird (“hypnotically bizarre”) and engaging film. After seeing it, rethink the message in the title (it is a real place) and brush up on your Latin.