Errol Morris Looks for the Truth in Photography
By KATHRYN SCHULZ Published: September 1, 201
One of the first things we learn in “Believing Is Seeing” is that its author, the filmmaker Errol Morris, has limited sight in one eye and lacks normal stereoscopic vision — “My fault,” he writes, for refusing to wear an eye patch after being treated for strabismus in childhood. It’s hard to think of another writer who so neatly embodies the theme of his own book. “Believing Is Seeing” is about the limitations of vision, and about the inevitable idiosyncrasies and distortions involved in the act of looking — in particular, looking at photographs.
BELIEVING IS SEEING
Observations on the Mysteries of Photography
By Errol Morris
The filmmaker’s columns about the mysteries of visual imagery.
Crimea, 1855: Which is “true?” A road with cannonballs, or without?
Or anyway, it’s sort of about that. Reading it, I thought of Morris’s first film, “Gates of Heaven,” which 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. Likewise, “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.
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 provisional, pastiche-y, deeply interesting attempt at an answer. Each of its six chapters originally appeared, in different form, in the Opinionator blog of The New York Times, and each centers on a photo or photo set: two slightly different pictures taken by Roger Fenton during the Crimean War; the infamous Abu Ghraib images, over two chapters; Depression-era photographs by Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein; pictures of children’s toys lying in the rubble after Israeli airstrikes on southern Lebanon in 2006; and an ambrotype of three young children that was found clutched in the hand of a dead Union soldier at Gettysburg in 1863.
The first of these chapters, on Roger Fenton, is a template, stylistically and thematically, for everything that follows. Taken in 1855, the two Fenton photographs show an empty stretch of road in a heavily shelled valley near Sebastopol. In one, cannonballs are scattered in ditches beside the road; in the other, they are also strewn along the road itself. Morris’s interest in these images was piqued by Susan Sontag, herself the author of two books on photography. According to Morris, Sontag claims that Fenton moved the cannonballs onto the road to create a more dramatic image. He is puzzled by this allegation (How does she know that Fenton staged the second photograph? How does she even know in what order the photographs were taken?), and irked by her opprobrium. “Even if Sontag is right, namely, that Fenton moved the cannonballs to telegraph the horrors of war, what’s so bad about that?” he asks. “Why does moralizing about ‘posing’ take precedence . . . over moralizing about the carnage of war?”
Morris himself has paid a price for “posing.” In 1989, he was passed over for an Oscar nomination for “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), reportedly because his use of staged re-creations violated the Academy’s standards for documentary films. (In 2004, he finally won his Oscar, for “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” Lesson 7: “Belief and Seeing Are Both Often Wrong.”) Morris not only defends the use of such staging techniques, but also suggests that we can never wholly avoid them. An elephant might have been standing on that road in Crimea, he points out, and Fenton could have waited until it passed out of the frame to take his pictures. In that case, Morris writes, “he posed the photograph by excluding something. . . . But how would you know? . . . Isn’t there always a possible elephant lurking just at the edge of the frame?”
Morris eventually solves the mystery of which Fenton photograph came first — and, as with all satisfying mysteries, the solution is beautifully obvious once you know it. The road to that solution, by contrast, is so subtle, elliptical and exhaustive that it lies just to the pleasurable side of tedium. Morris is one of the few prose writers to whom the adjective “repetitive” can be applied non-pejoratively. His repetition — and there is a lot of it — is procedural: he is testing, falsifying, eliminating possibilities. Like the music of Philip Glass(who scored several Morris films) and the murder scene in “The Thin Blue Line” (which is re-enacted over and over with minute changes), the essays in “Believing Is Seeing” are structured as a kind of theme-and-variation.
We first encounter this approach during Morris’s tortuous voyage through Crimea. But when he moves on to Abu Ghraib, it suddenly makes a different kind of sense. It turns out that Morris has been instructing us in a method: getting us accustomed, on the benign turf of the past, to “thinking about some of the most vexing issues in photography — about posing, about the intentions of the photographer, about the nature of photographic evidence — about the relationship between photographs and reality.”
When you ask these questions in the context of Abu Ghraib, both their stakes and their complexity become immediately apparent. Unlike the Crimea mystery, this one will not culminate in an airtight and satisfying solution; indeed, we will not encounter any more such solutions in this book. Instead, “Believing Is Seeing” reveals itself as really (albeit implicitly) about how it feels to sustain the search for truth in an infinitely complicated world. It is, itself, a kind of staged re-creation: of the battle between the Errol Morris who believes in irrefutable conclusions (and in the ethics and efficacy of his own particular means of arriving at them), and the Errol Morris who possesses a deeply personal understanding that the truth very often evades us.
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 direction — namely, toward the tangential and panoptic. The combined effect is weird and mesmerizing, like a blizzard falling on a single house. We are talking about a book that includes, among other things, maps, letters, timelines, family trees, old advertisements, military flowcharts and excerpts from interviews, all intercut with Morris’s own writing. (This last shows moments of flair, as when he compares Gorbachev’s estate to “a metastatic International House of Pancakes.” Mostly, though, Morris is plainspoken, and that style serves him well: he is matter-of-fact about matters of fact.)
And, of course, “Believing Is Seeing” includes photographs, many of which relate only obliquely to the text. In this respect, Morris’s book feels less like traditional photography criticism than like the novels of W. G. Sebald, which are similarly obsessed with truth, memory and war. We get odd, absorbing pictures of Mayan ruins, of Picasso and his mistress, of the high heels worn by Morris’s tour guide in Crimea: shanks, shoes, a shadow (presumably the photographer’s) falling across the once boot-trodden road. Like extra problem sets in a textbook, these photos offer us additional opportunities to practice the art of looking, while simultaneously multiplying the scale of, as Morris’s subtitle puts it, “the mysteries of photography.”
And “mystery” is the operative word. Before his filmmaking career took off, Morris had a day job as a detective, and he urges us, here, to read his essays “as a collection of mystery stories.” That’s easy advice to follow. As the de facto protagonist of his own book, Morris reminds me of no one so much as Sherlock Holmes, for whom private investigation was a form of practical epistemology. Like Holmes, Morris believes that truth can be revealed by impartially attending to details overlooked or misinterpreted by others. Like Holmes, he is patient, compulsive and unafraid of legwork. Of the Fenton photographs, he writes: “My hunch was that the lighting and shadows on the cannonballs might be the key to ordering” the images. “I wanted to experiment with lighting the cannonballs from various directions, replicating the directions of the sun and time of day. But first I needed an 1850s cannonball.” Off he goes to find one.
But if “Believing Is Seeing” is a collection of detective stories, there is even more mystery at hand than Morris lets on. Take, for instance, his showdown with Sontag. As it happens, she never claimed that Fenton “moved the cannonballs to telegraph the horrors of war.” On the contrary: in “Regarding the Pain of Others” (2004), she disparages Fenton as a stooge of the British government, sent to Crimea “to give another, more positive impression of the increasingly unpopular war.” Indeed, of all Fenton’s pictures, Sontag likes the ones of the road to Sebastopol best; in these, she says, he finally “reaches beyond benign documentation.” She does note that Fenton moved the cannonballs onto the road (a claim Morris’s investigation confirms) — but she is neither more outraged nor less thoughtful about this than Morris. The technologies and conventions of the time all but mandated such staging, and anyway, “with time, many staged photographs turn back into historical evidence, albeit of an impure kind.”
Morris’s mistaken claim about Sontag would be little more than a fact-checker’s quibble, except that it illuminates a central fault line in his work. Fact-checking is, after all, what Morris champions here. To unearth the truth, he argues, we must avoid making psychological inferences and taking ideological stands; only facts should command our attention. But no one other than the fictional Holmes possesses such a dispassionate (not to say impoverished) perspective on life, and very few people believe, these days, that facts can be plucked so cleanly from the human context. Certainly “Believing Is Seeing” is far from ideologically neutral. Its implicit commitments are suggested by the standoff with Sontag, and also by the fact — unacknowledged by Morris — that all of its central photographs are profoundly political. Indeed, with one exception, they are all wartime images. There’s a reason this book contains little or no discussion of commercial photography, fashion photography, photography as art, soon-to-be-regretted yearbook photos or iPhone snapshots. Given Morris’s real (if unstated) interests, these are elephants outside the frame.
Here, then, is a mystery of a different order. Call it “Observations on the Mysteries of Errol Morris.” Whatever else he is doing, Morris is working out his own relationship to the documentary project, including to its other practitioners and critics. Reportedly, his next two books will look at the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, whose skepticism for scientific truth Morris abhors, and Janet Malcolm, for years the photography critic at The New Yorker and later the author of “The Journalist and the Murderer,” a book about the factually, ethically and legally troubled relationship between a reporter and a convicted killer.
Knowing this, I can’t help wondering if “Believing Is Seeing” is the first installment in a three-volume attempt to make sense of the relationship between the documentarian, the documented and the truth. I hope so. For Morris, the truth is (as they say) out there; the question is how to pick our way in its direction. There is no mechanical means of doing so, he argues; the camera is never wholly obscura or lucida. Perhaps this is why Morris’s book feels so human. It combines the hubris of his ends — the desire, shared by approximately all of us, to lay claim to the truth — with the humility of his means. In “Believing Is Seeing,” Morris explores and refines our most basic way of understanding the world, which is also a plea for attention, an invitation to communal experience, an expression of urgency, an exclamation of wonder and one of our first, most important and most enduring requests of each other: Look!
Kathryn Schulz is the author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.”