Believing Is Seeing by Errol Morris
Observations on the Mysteries of Photography

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Synopsis

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris investigates the hidden truths behind a series of documentary photographs.

In Believing is Seeing Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris turns his eye to the nature of truth in photography. In his inimitable style, Morris untangles the mysteries behind an eclectic range of documentary photographs, from the ambrotype of three children found clasped in the hands of an unknown soldier at Gettysburg to the indelible portraits of the WPA photography project. Each essay in the book presents the reader with a conundrum and investigates the relationship between photographs and the real world they supposedly record.

During the Crimean War, Roger Fenton took two nearly identical photographs of the Valley of the Shadow of Death-one of a road covered with cannonballs, the other of the same road without cannonballs. Susan Sontag later claimed that Fenton posed the first photograph, prompting Morris to return to Crimea to investigate. Can we recover the truth behind Fenton's intentions in a photograph taken 150 years ago?

In the midst of the Great Depression and one of the worst droughts on record, FDR's Farm Service Administration sent several photographers, including Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans, to document rural poverty. When Rothstein was discovered to have moved the cow skull in his now-iconic photograph, fiscal conservatives-furious over taxpayer money funding an artistic project-claimed the photographs were liberal propaganda. What is the difference between journalistic evidence, fine art, and staged propaganda?

During the Israeli-Lebanese war in 2006, no fewer than four different photojournalists took photographs in Beirut of toys lying in the rubble of bombings, provoking accusations of posing and anti-Israeli bias at the news organizations. Why were there so many similar photographs? And were the accusers objecting to the photos themselves or to the conclusions readers drew from them?

With his keen sense of irony, skepticism, and humor, Morris reveals in these and many other investigations how photographs can obscure as much as they reveal and how what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Part detective story, part philosophical meditation, Believing Is Seeing is a highly original exploration of photography and perception from one of America's most provocative observers.
 

About Errol Morris

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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.
 
Published September 1, 2011 by Penguin Press. 336 pages
Genres: History, Arts & Photography. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for Believing Is Seeing

Kirkus Reviews

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So does Morris, who insists, “The photographs are the start of a trail of evidence, but not the end…We shouldn’t allow what happened at Abu Ghraib to disappear except for a smile.” Along the way, the author gets in a few digs at theoreticians of photography, taking genteel issue with the arid Sus...

Aug 01 2011 | Read Full Review of Believing Is Seeing: Observat...

The New York Times

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As that suggests, Morris believes in objective truth, and believes that people can grasp it — “even though,” as he has written elsewhere, “the world is unutterably insane.” The question then becomes how to coax an insane world into yielding up its truths, and “Believing Is Seeing” amounts to a pr...

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Publishers Weekly

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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.

Jun 20 2011 | Read Full Review of Believing Is Seeing: Observat...

The Wall Street Journal

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William Meyers reviews "Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of
Photography" by Errol Morris.

| Read Full Review of Believing Is Seeing: Observat...

The Wall Street Journal

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Errol Morris is a curious guy: "Believing Is Seeing" is a recapitulation of the extraordinary efforts that Mr. Morris, the Academy-Award winning director of such documentaries as "The Thin Blue Line" (1988) and "The Fog of War" (2004), made to satisfy his curiosity about a dozen or so notable pho...

Aug 27 2011 | Read Full Review of Believing Is Seeing: Observat...

Star Tribune

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Morris interrogates these images the way a detective grills a suspect (and, in fact, Morris did once work for a private detective agency): Who took the picture?

Dec 24 2011 | Read Full Review of Believing Is Seeing: Observat...

AV Club

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“It was a fantasy within a fantasy within the reality of the White House.” Photographs, Morris argues, can draw at least as much from fantasy as reality.

Sep 07 2011 | Read Full Review of Believing Is Seeing: Observat...

Los Angeles Times

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(All the book's essays, except for the introduction and epilogue, originally appeared on the New York Times website, and all have been revised for publication.) Although his investigations sometimes have the feel of clinical autopsies, peeling back informational layers like a flayed epidermis, M...

Aug 28 2011 | Read Full Review of Believing Is Seeing: Observat...

Christian Science Monitor

Errol Morris asks whether tampering with photographs – like moving cannonballs near a battlefield – matters, and if so, how and why?

Oct 25 2011 | Read Full Review of Believing Is Seeing: Observat...

Boston.com

He eventually solves the problem of which photo came first in ingenious fashion, but not before questioning the entire notion of photographic fakery: “Couldn’t you argue that every photograph is posed because every photograph excludes something?’’ Morris is hardly done with taking the author of “...

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The New Yorker

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Oct 17 2011 | Read Full Review of Believing Is Seeing: Observat...

Los Angeles Review of Books

It's a quiet photo and a private moment, and those who have seen this image captioned will know that this man lost his son on September 11th, 2001.

May 20 2012 | Read Full Review of Believing Is Seeing: Observat...

Book Forum

"It is easy to confuse photographs with reality," Morris writes, arguing that we look at this photograph and believe it to depict a moment of torture being carried out on a person we have since identified.

Oct 19 2011 | Read Full Review of Believing Is Seeing: Observat...

The Moderate Voice

This is not to say that the truth can’t be coaxed from photographs, which Morris does to fascinating effect in analyzing two slightly different photographs by Roger Fenton of a Crimean War landscape littered with cannonballs, the infamous Abu Ghraib images, Depression-era photographs by Walker Ev...

Jan 05 2012 | Read Full Review of Believing Is Seeing: Observat...

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