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 truthin both senseslies…It is impossible to read Believing Is Seeing without the word "obsessive" coming to mind. Happily, this thematic narrowness is counterbalanced by a stylistic tendency in the opposite directionnamely, toward the tangential and panoptic. The combined effect is weird and mesmerizing, like a blizzard falling on a single house.
The New York Times
Facts matter to Morris, as he proves by doing basic detective work. He engages in archival research, he interviews experts, and he presses skeptically against theories and assumptions. He prides himself on "a combination of the prurient with the pedantic," and the mixture works just as well in this book as it does in his films…[the] book is beautifully designed, underscoring that visual evidence has its own texture, its own feel.
The Washington Post
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.)
At its core, though, "Believing Is Seeing" is an elegantly conceived and ingeniously constructed work of cultural psycho-anthropology wrapped around a warning about the dangers of drawing inferences about the motives of photographers based on the split-second snapshots of life that they present to us. It's also a cautionary lesson for navigating a world in which, more and more, we fashion our notions of truth from the flickering apparitions dancing before our eyes.
Los Angeles Times
Oscar-winning filmmaker (The Fog of War) Morris investigates well-known images to examine the nature of truth in photography. He chooses images from four different wars (the Crimean War, the Civil War, the Iraq War, and the Israeli-Lebanese war) as well as photographs from the Farm Service Administration and the Works Progress Administration taken during and after the Great Depression. He approaches each photographic mystery as a forensic scientist would, performing exhaustive research, consulting historical and scientific experts, traveling to the sites where the photographs were made, and conducting experiments with exposure and lighting. What Morris reveals is that regardless of an image's historical data or metadata, inherently complex theoretical issues of intention, concealment, and revelation will always exist. VERDICT Although the research is serious, extremely thorough, and extensively detailed, Morris's writing style is accessible and enjoyable. Originally published as individual essays in the New York Times, this book is destined to become a classic in photo theory. Recommended for undergraduate and graduate photography and art history collections. [See Prepub Alert, 11/29/10.]—Shauna Frischkorn, Millersville Univ., PA
Master documentarian Morris serves up an erudite, sometimes recondite examination of the power of photographs to conceal as much as they reveal.
The author, known for films such asThe Thin Blue LineandThe Fog of War, is a truth-teller, skilled at using filmic and photographic evidence to reveal truth and innocence. Here he interrogates the truth—or not—of images iconic and scarcely known, beginning with a long and sometimes dauntingly technical disquisition on a brace of photographs taken in the Crimean War following the vaunted Charge of the Light Brigade. In one image, cannonballs lie neatly arranged along the side of the road along which the attack occurred; in another, the cannonballs are strewn about as if they had fallen there. Did the British photographer move the cannonballs to heighten the drama of the image, or did British engineers clean up the road so that equipment could pass? In other words, which image came first? Doggedly, Morris traveled to Crimea to find the site and puzzle over the position of the sun to answer those questions. The cross-examination is leisurely, methodical, sometimes even plodding, but there's a purpose to the slow establishment of forensic fact, since Morris then moves on to more recent—and certainly controversial—photographs taken at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Readers will remember the smiling thumbs-up over corpses, the damaged fellow standing wired as if ready to be crucified. So does Morris, who insists, "The photographs are the start of a trail of evidence, butnotthe 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 Susan Sontag/Roland Barthes school of interpretation. But mostly he sticks to what he sees before him, and not on what others have seen and said.
Students of photography—and fans ofCSI—will find this a provocative, memorable book.