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VINE VOICEon October 17, 2011
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. To thoughtful photographers and philosophers the information that he provides will be enough for them to reach their own conclusions. In a work designed for a popular audience this vagueness is unwarranted. Most readers will require a little bit more than just the facts the author discloses (and certainly might have benefitted from a few more answers, like that of the photographer's motivation and some deeper discussion of the ethical questions). Add to that the lengthy quoting of often irrelevant interviews, especially with people who may have had a special axe to grind, and most readers may wonder what the essay was about.

To be fair, the author does not purport to offer a full blown argument about truth in photography. As he says, these are merely observations.

That doesn't mean that some of the stories are not interesting for side details. I had long admired Dorothea Lange's photograph, "Migrant Mother" showing the drawn face of what I believed was a victim of the dustbowl. I was astonished by the present day photograph of the women and her three daughters, all looking well-fed and prosperous. Similarly, I was filled with distaste for the story of the grey-principled doctor who took advantage of the photograph of children that was found in the hands of the dead Civil War soldier.

On the other hand I was astonished that the conclusion of the exploration of Abu Ghraib photographs was to raise the question of who was responsible for the murder of a victim shown in one of the photographs. The question certainly is important but it was raised unexpectedly out of a discussion which made the issue seem peripheral. Perhaps that was the intention of the author, but it certainly made what had gone before in the essay seem poorly crafted.

For the most part, however, I was disappointed that the author, after promising to explore the truthfulness of photographs and their impact on society, could let his arguments lapse into question marks.
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on April 21, 2014
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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on September 13, 2011
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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on December 25, 2012
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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on October 5, 2011
One of the most addictive, fascinating collection of essays I've ever read... Errol Morris makes deceptively simple observations about the nature of photography, and then allows those observations to take him (and us) deeper down the philosophical rabbit hole than we could possibly expect. His obsessive, driven sleuthing occasionally creates a strange kind of riveting suspense, making this book easily the equal of his greatest, most entertaining film work. Get it!
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on May 28, 2012
You will never look at a photograph in the same way after reading this book.

Errol Morris is already famous as an accomplished documentary filmmaker. He is also an erudite but not posturing thinker. You can get a sense of the quality of Morris's thought by sampling some of the pieces he has written for The Opinionator in the New York Times. The same careful, intelligent analysis informs this book, where it is devoted to a series of problems of knowledge, organized around photographs, all of which are diligently reproduced (sometimes several times) throughout the volume.

This book is about not so much photography as the epistemology of photography, and thus the foundations of knowledge generally. The writing is clear and focused but it requires that you follow the author's concentration. By closely examining a series of photographs and thinking hard about their origins, contents, and context, Morris challenges readers (and viewers) about what they do and know when they process a photograph. However, it is hard to give an accurate sense of Morris's style of looking and thinking. I have never read a book quite like this.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that "Believing is Seeing" is a specialty book intended only for photographers or students of the visual arts or editors, although they will all profit from it. It will teach you to think better and to look at photographs better, not necessarily in that order.
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on February 15, 2015
Though it was published earlier, this is the best book I read in 2014. It has flaws - the last third isn't nearly as good as the first two thirds - but Morris' discussion of the authenticity of the famous Crimean War picture, the scope of his intellectual engagement, his detective work, the careful approach he took to his subject is absolutely breathtaking. Consider this a seven star review minus two stars for the last section. Highly recommended.
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Errol Morris has used his camera to satisfy his curiosity and to pique ours. He has made documentaries such as _The Fog of War_ which interviewed the rueful Vietnam War administrator Robert McNamara, and _Standard Operating Procedure_ which investigated the truths revealed (or not) in the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. His _The Thin Blue Line_ was a brilliant investigation of a wrongly convicted death-row inmate in Texas, and it meticulously recreated the supposed crime from different viewpoints. When it came time for the 1988 film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, the Academy declined to do so; Morris had staged recreations of the crime, you see, so it wasn't really a documentary. So Morris ought to have good ideas about how photographs work, and what makes them true and what makes them false. He puts those ideas within four connected essays in _Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography_ (The Penguin Press), a handsome book, fittingly well-illustrated, of detailed examination of specific photographs, some famous and some obscure, to show how they inform or mislead us. Each chapter serves up an image that seems almost self-explanatory, and then Morris meticulously dissects it, calls in experts, and uncovers a tangled world of contingencies and eventual mysteries that we cannot fathom. It is a disconcerting exercise; what the photographs mean seemed so obvious. But Morris has reminded us: "_Nothing_ is so obvious it is obvious." Each chapter beautifully illustrates this aphorism.

The first photographs examined are two that come from the Crimean War. Each is taken from the same spot with camera fixed on a tripod on a day in 1855. They show a road near the site where the Light Brigade charged, and they are nearly identical. However, in one photo (called here "OFF") there are cannonballs in a gully to the side of the road, and in the other (called here "ON") the cannonballs are scattered on the road itself. Susan Sontag commented on the two photographs, saying that the photographer, Roger Fenton, had moved the cannonballs onto the road to make the admittedly horrific shelling seem more photographically dramatic. Morris wanted to know how Sontag knew so much about what Fenton was doing, or if he had actually done it, and even if the photographs were in the sequence OFF then ON. Morris not only flew to the Crimea to look at the site (it is remarkably unchanged although cannonballs are long gone), but he got an earful from experts, one at the Victoria and Albert Museum who says Fenton moved the cannonballs, and another at the J. Paul Getty who says he did not, and one at the Metropolitan who says that soldiers could have moved the cannonballs from the road not only to clear it but to have them ready for pickup and refiring at the enemy who sent them originally. This would put ON before OFF. The beauty in this section, and in the others, is joining Morris in a wide-ranging and obsessive quest. He quotes at length his interviews with his experts. He even uses "software routinely used by gaffers (lighting technicians) in the motion picture business" to evaluate the Sun's position as it moved across the sky on 23 April 1855, causing the shadows of the cannonballs to move. In the end, it is gravity that gives the answer about which photo came first, but why the cannonballs were moved is a moral question we can no longer ask the photographer. Then Morris has another, more vital question; no one doubts that this campaign was vicious, but even if Fenton did move the cannonballs to demonstrate it: "Why does moralizing about `posing' take precedence - moral precedence - over moralizing about the carnage of war?"

There are two chapters devoted to photographs from Abu Ghraib, one that analyzes the work of photographers who were part of a Depression-era New Deal agency, one devoted to the photograph of a Mickey Mouse doll abandoned in a glass-strewn street of apartment buildings in Lebanon, bombed-out by Israeli air strikes, and one to a photograph found on a soldier's body at Gettysburg. Morris writes, "Today, possibly because of Photoshop and other photography-doctoring software, people have become suspicious of photographs. This is a good thing." None of the case studies here, however, involve any of that sort of digital rearrangement. People find certainty in photographs, but Morris shows that the certainty is in their minds beforehand, and people consistently see ambiguous photos as increasing the certainty they had before anyway. It may not be as dire a situation as he states it: "Truth in photography is an elusive notion. There might not be any such thing." I am not willing to accept that there can be no photographic truth, and I think Morris's fascinating efforts here show that it can at least be approached, however elusive.
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on January 12, 2013
While most photographers, myself included, just take what we do for granted, Errol Morris points out the manipulative nature of all photographs. Artists do much the same thing. The very act of "selecting" what to capture in an image and what to leave out is an act of selective vision that we use to inform or impress our viewers. But, since we are not all taking images to be used in a court room in a legal case, or to document a war, that is fine. His observations will make you think more deeply about what you photograph, but certainly won't change my methods or intent.
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on May 30, 2012
As a photographer, I appreciated Errol Morris' book on several levels. He examines several case studies, specific photographs since the advent of photography which have in some way affected the perception of history; his choices in themselves are intreguing. Morris' style of writing manages to read as both academic and personal, and he takes advantage of all the research options available, both human and otherwise. His central point, that an image can be manipulated by both the artist and the viewing public to become something more, makes you question all of modern media.
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