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Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography Hardcover – September 1, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"Morris brings an insatiable and contagious curiosity throughout to the convolutions that arise between art and truth telling."
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"...Morris's book feels less like traditional photography criticism than like the novels of W. G. Sebald, which are similarly obsessed with truth, memory and war. We get odd, absorbing pictures of Mayan ruins, of Picasso and his mistress, of the high heels worn by Morris's tour guide in Crimea: shanks, shoes, a shadow (presumably the photographer's) falling across the once boot-trodden road. Like extra problem sets in a textbook, these photos offer us additional opportunities to practice the art of looking, while simultaneously multiplying the scale of, as Morris's subtitle puts it, 'the mysteries of photography.'"
-New York Times Book Review

"Believing Is Seeing is an important book: It reminds us, at a time when it is remarkably easy to manipulate images and we are daily inundated with more and more of them, to ask: 'What, after all, are we looking at?'"
-Wall Street Journal

"[A]n elegantly conceived and ingeniously constructed work of cultural psycho-anthropology wrapped around a warning about the dangers of drawing inferences about the motives of photographers based on the split-second snapshots of life that they present to us. It's also a cautionary lesson for navigating a world in which, more and more, we fashion our notions of truth from the flickering apparitions dancing before our eyes."
-Los Angeles Times

"Delightfully conversational..."
-Boston Globe

"...simultaneously bewildering and thrilling, like finding a fathomless secret world hidden behind the seeming simplicity of everyday life."

"Morris' assiduous and profound inquiry into the relationship between reality and photography is eye-opening, mind-expanding, and essential in this age of ubiquitous digital images."
-Booklist (starred review)

"Students of photography-and fans of CSI-will find this a provocative, memorable book..."
-Kirkus Reviews

About the Author

Errol Morris is a world-renowned filmmaker-the Academy Award- winning director of The Fog of War and the recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Award. His other films include Standard Operating Procedure; Mr. Death; Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control; A Brief History of Time; and The Thin Blue Line.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; First Edition edition (September 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594203016
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594203015
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #506,178 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Conrad J. Obregon VINE VOICE on October 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover
A common question among serious photographers is "what is the truth of a photograph?" Errol Morris, an Academy Award winning documentary film maker, approaches the question in this book.

He does it by examining specific images in six essays, that deal with two similar photographs taken in the Crimean War; the well known photographs of prisoners and GI's at Abu Ghraib prison; several photographs taken by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression; an image of a child's toy in war-torn Lebanon; and a photograph of children found in the hand of a dead soldier at Gettysburg. His method is similar in all cases; he researches the background of the images and reports apparently verbatim interviews that he had with various people involved with the photographs.

His handling of the Crimean war images is a paradigm of his method. The late public intellectual Susan Sontag attacked a photographer of that conflict who had taken two images of a road, one with canon balls in a gully, and the same view with the canon balls on a road. Morris faults Sontag for accusing the photographer of setting up the latter image, and recounts his own efforts to learn which picture was taken first. After interviewing many experts with no success Morris made a trip to the Crimea and determined that the photographer was facing north. With this information in hand, a forensic scientist was able to determine which photograph was the later.

The author raises many questions, including how and why the difference, and dances around the question of whether the second photograph should be considered a fake. Morris never really answers the question.
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Format: Hardcover
Anyone who has ever looked at a photograph and experienced some kind of emotion will appreciate Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mystery of Photography by Errol Morris.

In six essays Morris explores the concept of truth in photography and discusses the relationship of photographs to the real world. A photograph can reveal or a photograph can obscure. A photographer decides what will be seen, and someone looking at a photograph will develop impressions based on their own life experiences. So many factors are involved. What is real? What is art? Some photographs are used for medical diagnosis, even mental health as I was amazed to learn in Face of Madness: Hugh W. Diamond and the Origin of Psychiatric Photography.

As an Academy Award winning documentarian, Morriw knows a thing or two about capturing moments. His book is part photography book, part detective story as he investigates the elements that go into creating a picture. The most impressive of these investigations is, of course, his dissection of two nearly identical photos of the Valley of the Shadow of Death - in one the road is covered in cannonballs, in the other the cannonballs can be seen only to the side of the road. What does this mean? A debate arises as to which image is the true image and whether one is more realistic to the subject than the other.

Believing is Seeing really gets you thinking about the way we look at photos. It is almost an art unto itself. Through his signature style, Morris encourages readers to meditate on the subject. If you love striking photographs or books that offer a unique philosophy, this is a must read.
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Morris makes documentaries, and this is definitely a book written by a documentarian, which is not entirely a criticism. There are a lot of transcripts of long exchanges between him and people he calls up to talk to about various photos (which is actually not how he does his documentaries, where you almost never hear his side of the interview). The most interesting chapters of the book are about Abu Ghraib photos--what does it mean to misidentify the famous hooded man, as the NYT did? Given that the man they misidentified was also imprisoned, was also tortured, why focus on whether the picture was of him? What about the photos of US military personnel smiling and giving thumbs-up signs in front of humiliated prisoners? When we see a social smile, we think it indicates pleasure even when it instead represents discomfort with nowhere to go. Morris has a lot of important stuff to say about framing, reality, and how we shape the meaning of images; he also has a lot of stuff to say about how he figured out which of two pictures of a battlefield was taken first, where a less obsessive person would have given you the answer and the reasoning without telling you all about all the unsuccessful attempts to figure it out in other ways.
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This is not a book for a tipical or amateur photographer. This is a book por people who care very seriously about photography. This is the kind of book for people who keeps thinking about what photography really is, the importance of photography, the influence of photography, the history of photography, the mass media manipulation using photography. In other words, don't buy this book if you don't care about photography's theory. And if you do, don't miss it!
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