Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography

Errol Morris, Author
Errol Morris. Penguin Press, $40 (336p) ISBN 978-1-59420-301-5
Reviewed on: 06/20/2011
Release date: 09/01/2011
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Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Morris (Fog of War) offers a collection of fascinating investigative essays on documentary photography and its relation to reality. Arguing that photographs conceal as much as they reveal, Morris revisits historical but still passionately alive controversies (like accusations of photographers working for the Depression-era Farm Security Administration staging scenes) as well as contemporary ones (newswire photos of children's toys, for instance, shot among the rubble of Israel-bombed southern Lebanon). Indeed, one chapter expands on the filmmaker's own Standard Operating Procedure (2008), a documentary examining the Abu Ghraib scandal through an interrogation of its now iconic photographs. Morris begins with a brilliant opening chapter—a template and touchstone for what follows, a case study in the history of documentary photography: Roger Fenton's two 1855 images of The Valley of the Shadow of Death, a road near the front lines of the Crimean War. The gripping account tacitly puts Morris—as well as his various assistants and interlocutors—in the plot of a detective novel, with the author a kind of Hercule Poirot of the photographic world. While not covering new ground everywhere he goes—although his literal retracing of old ground in the case of The Valley of the Shadow of Death leads to surprising revelations—Morris brings an insatiable and contagious curiosity throughout to the convolutions that arise between art and truth telling. (Sept.)
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