Sunday, December 4, 2011

Recent Reading: Filmmaker Errol Morris' Observations of Photography, "Believing Is Seeing"

The AltTulsa gang has a serious interest in all things cultural, creative endeavors such as art, film, literature and the like.

So we were suckers for Errol Morris' new book, Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography). Morris, after all, is a noted documentary filmmaker (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) and MacArthur ("genius") award winner who is famously obsessive in his pursuit of the odd and the amazing.

In Seeing Is Believing, Morris writes about the more-complicated-than-you-would-expect meanings of photographs, focusing on a number of famous (or infamous) photos from the Crimean War to the Civil War and Abu Ghraib. (Remember the notorious photo of the hooded man, wires attached to his hands?)

The chapters, many of which include verbatim transcripts of Morris' interviews with various historians and photo buffs, raise important questions what is "real" in photographs. When the Depression-era photographer Authur Rothstein moved a cow skull in his documentation of the drought in North Dakota, for example, was that a "fake" photo?

The answer, as Morris tells it, is hardly straightforward. After all, there was an actual drought in North Dakota, as well as many cow skulls. So what, if anything, was fake about the image? 

Believing Is Seeing is full of such conundrums, which is why it makes fascinating reading. We recommend the book, though with this caveat: Morris is so obsessive and relentless in his search for the truth, some readers may find the text tedious and off-putting.

For us, Morris' obsession was a small price to pay for a thoughtful meditation on images and the role they play in our lives and cultural history.

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