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believing is seeing

5 may 2012

Errol Morris says in Believing Is Seeing, with a certain rueful self-awareness, that his life's work in filmmaking has combined the pedantic and the prurient. Believing Is Seeing delivers on both counts, and also indulges Morris's lifelong love of nonsequitur and incongruous alignment.

Each of the chapters of Believing Is Seeing examines a different photograph, in search of the truths behind the picture that might fix, once and for all, the meanings and arguments encoded in the image. We expect so much from photographs, Morris implicitly argues, that that very expectation makes them paradoxically much less definitive than they could be.

Many of the essays in Believing Is Seeing originate in a sense of scandal – though the rationale for this scandalization becomes mistier the more one examines it. In the opening essay, Morris analyzes two enigmatic photographs by Crimean War artist Roger Fenton. One shows a barren battlefield with cannonballs in gullies along a road. The other shows the same landscape, with cannonballs strewn all over the road itself.

So where's the scandal? Morris's interest in the Fenton photographs was spurred by an offhand comment from Susan Sontag, who saw the cannonballs-on-the-road image (the one that Morris calls "ON") as evidence that Fenton dressed up reality to get a more affecting image – and possibly also to suggest that he himself had been under fire while taking his pictures.

The trouble with the allegations of scandal is that the images are so inscrutable that Morris, for the longest time, couldn't tell if the "cannonballs ON" image was actually shot after the "cannonballs OFF," or the other way round. He eventually solved the mystery not by means of any TV-cop-show enhancing technology, but with the help of analyst Dennis Purcell, who painstakingly identified individual rocks in each image. In the ON photograph, these rocks tended to show up downhill from their OFF positions: exactly as if a crew of men, lugging cannonballs around to set up a more interesting picture, had nudged them downhill in the process.

So Sontag was right about the sequence of images. But what about the significance of that sequence? In either case, the images show a bunch of spent ordnance on a bleak country roadside. In either case, war is hell. But as Morris moves through his other essays, examining other scandals from photos taken during wars or during the Great Depression, he juxtaposes the artistic demands of photography against the journalistic imperative that nothing in a "news" photograph must be adjusted for aesthetic effect. Photographs, the common wisdom goes, show exactly what's there to be seen, cannot lie, cannot or at least should not be "composed" in the way a painting can, and therefore give us immediate access to the truth of any situation.

Journalism should be separate from art, in other words. But art photography clearly exists, and is older than journalistic photography. Portraiture is deeply interwoven in the nature of photography. When a photographer takes a portrait, the subjects are carefully posed, often enhanced with costumes, makeup, or injunctions to smile. When a photographer takes a "news" shot of a celebrity, the subject often poses as a matter of course: nobody thinks that Angela Merkel shaking hands with Vladimir Putin is some kind of candid snap. And so, when a documentary photographer takes photos of non-famous subjects – as Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange did to document the Depression – the subjects do a certain amount of unavoidable posing, unless they're out-and-out ambushed by the photographer, which would be awkward and rude, to say the least.

Far from posing a picture outright, let's say a photographer moves things around to align them better for a shot. Fenton seems to have done this with his cannonballs; Evans may have done so with an alarm clock that appears out of place in his images of a sharecropper's cottage; Arthur Rothstein notoriously did it with a bleached skull that he found in the dustbowl Dakotas. Has the alteration turned news into an editorial? Let's say that Rothstein had a farm family walk up to their dust-besieged cottage several times to get the right effect. There was still a dust storm, and that was still their cottage, Morris points out. Does "staging" the scene invalidate it as a witness to reality?

I was as fascinated with Believing Is Seeing as its author is by the images at its heart. It's a quirky and idiosyncratic book, though. Morris gets off his own obsessive track very easily, in the same way his often-charming and often-puzzling films do. And his range of reference is limited. He prefers to interview people, printing the interviews in a style like that of his documentaries, or to travel to a scene and make the story about himself, instead of doing his own research. That's great, really – it's how he makes artistic choices similar to those he observes in the photography he studies. But at times one could wish for more learning. For example, much of Believing Is Seeing is about staged 19th-century battlefield photography. One entire chapter is about Gettysburg (though not centrally about Gettysburg battlefield images). Yet Morris does not mention William Frassanito even once in his book. Strictly speaking, he's not obliged to; Morris doesn't poach on any of the meticulous and paradigm-shifting analysis that Frassanito has done on Civil War photography. But at times Morris can talk as if nobody's ever had the idea of doing the sort of things that he does, and by omission, that attitude is slightly misleading. Of course, Believing Is Seeing convinces us, if nothing else, that misleading by omission is unavoidable in photography – and perhaps in any discussion of anything.

Morris, Errol. Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the mysteries of photography). New York: Penguin, 2011.