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Book Review: Errol Morris–Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography)

September 12, 2011

One of the more remarkable documentary filmmakers of our time is Errol Morris, who I count as an acquaintance.

Morris’s first major film was one of the funniest documentaries ever made, the 1978 Gates of Heavena film that discusses … pet cemeteries.  I had the pleasure of seeing Werner Herzog actually eat his shoe at the premiere of Gates of Heaven.  (Herzog had foolishly claimed that if Morris made his film, Herzog would eat his own shoe – at least it was cooked by Alice Waters first.)  But as Katherine Schulz wrote in a New York Times review:  “Gates of Heaven … is ostensibly about pet cemeteries and includes more material on pet cemeteries than any other movie ever made (including Pet Sematary) but is, nonetheless, not really about pet cemeteries at all.”

1148_head_werner_shoe

A later film which I found equally profound was Morris’s Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. a film about an electric chair technician who claimed to possess forensic evidence that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.  This film is also fundamentally about something different than Holocaust denial.

Mrdeath

Since 2007, Morris has maintained the blog “Zoom” at the New York Times which has addressed a wide variety of topics.  He began the blog by examining photographs:

  • A pair of slightly different Roger Fenton photographs of the Crimean War (according to some, Fenton was the first official war photographers)
  • The Abu Ghraib photographs
  • The Walker Evans-Arthur Rothstein-Dorothea Lange photographs of the Great Depression (including images from the James Agee and Walker Evan’s book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.)
  • Photographs from Southern Lebanon of children toys amidst destroyed buildings during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict.
  • An early photograph (“ambrotype”) found on a dead soldier at the battle of Gettysburg.

Morris has now collected and revised these blog posts in his book, Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography).  His approach is highly appealing – each of these sets of photographs represents a mystery, which Errol Morris then investigates; the bulk of the chapter being the process of investigation.  This might sound tedious, but these read as marvelous blog posts – with many illustrations and digressions and jokes.  (The original blog posts had even a little more – invitations to readers to submit their own theories about the photographs.  However, Morris’ unfolding of his investigations of these photographs is, in its own way, something of an invitation for a special engagement with the reader, as the reader weighs the evidence and see how it first points one way, but ultimately another way.)

believingisseeing

In her review Kathryn Schulz wrote that just as Gates of Heaven was ultimately not about pet cemeteries, Believing is Seeing is not really about photography:  “Believing Is Seeing, though perceptive about photography, is fundamentally concerned with something very different: epistemology. Morris is chiefly interested in the nature of knowledge, in figuring out where the truth — in both senses — lies.”

I’m not sure that Schulz’s review, though favorable, will help sell books.  Her portrayal of Believing is Seeing makes it seem as if Morris’s book is a heavy philosophical tome.  This it is not.  In fact, it is the record of an amateur detective, and much more akin to the Sherlock Holmes story than a philosophy book.  Morris writes completely without pretense or pretension.  There is no visible artifice here and this book is not a record of a lecture.  Rather, it reads a bit like a careful story unwound over dinner – mystery made and mystery solved.  The question of epistemology is something that you, the reader will have to find in your meditations on the book – but the total effect of the book certainly forces us to think about apparent evidentiary power of photography in a new way.

While in a way horrifying (because the topics dealt with in the photographs are inherently upsetting), this book is also fascinating, and even though I had read many of Morris’s blog posts when he originally made them, I found myself completely entranced as I read this book.  I can recommend it to you without reservation.

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