Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 15, 2012
Errol Morris Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography New York: Penguin, 2011. 336 pp.; 179 ills. Cloth $40.00 (9781594203015)

In his latest book, Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris writes with genuine gusto: “It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around” (93). While these types of statements are common in documentary films, serving to summarize a complex subject or individual, they can sound trite in a book that asks to be read in the fields of art history, visual culture studies, anthropology, and philosophy. They attest to the degree to which Morris’s book rehearses and arrives at conclusions about photography that have already been posited, challenged, and rethought by scholars in more insightful ways.

Throughout Believing Is Seeing, Morris asserts that his interest is in the complicated terrain between photography and epistemology—that is, the relationship between photography and knowledge. Hence he speaks of the “mysteries of photography.” Morris’s interest in this subject was initially articulated in his Opinionator blog for The New York Times from 2007–2010. In book form, the six chapters published on the blog become what Morris calls “a collection of mystery stories” that allow him “to work out [his] own issues about what ‘documentary’ means” (157). The “mysteries” at hand are both historical and contemporary. They include the “staging” of Roger Fenton’s famous Crimean War photographs and later that of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs by Arthur Rothstein and Walker Evans, the Abu Ghraib photographs of a “smiling” Sabrina Harmon (a member of the 372nd MP Brigade), and disputes over the images of “toy photographers” from the Israeli-Lebanese war in July 2006. Morris’s positivist premise is that debates over the sequencing, staging, framing, manipulation, and lighting of photographs must be approached via “objective” research: historical, scientific, and psychological. Morris casts himself as the detective, intent on posing exacting questions that pare away the apparently inconsequential and get to the heart of things. The heart, or what he calls the “fact,” of the matter is our individual and collective relation to the photographic image. And for Morris, the full complexity of that encounter with a photograph—its visibility, interpretation, temporality, possibility—is available to be “solved” or explained away.

Only in the middle of Believing Is Seeing does Morris ask a series of questions that have been foundational to historiographic and theoretical debates about photography: “While the technology may have changed, the underlying issues remain constant. When does a photograph document reality? When is it propaganda? When is it art? Can a single photograph be all three?” (133) At this point readers will begin to see that the confidences of positivism are shaken as Morris traverses each of his case studies. Whereas the issues around Fenton’s photographs are nicely apportioned and resolved in the book, the other case studies offer no such clarity, only further complication. Thus thirty pages on from the questions cited above, in the chapter on the staging of FSA documentary photography, Morris again is left querying: “These photographs function on so many different levels and mean so many different things to different people. Are they fine works of art? Are they documentary photographs? Can they be both? How much can a photographer interfere with a scene before it’s no longer a documentary photograph?” (167) Answers to these questions, however unresolvable, would have added a richness and complexity to Morris’s book. Indeed, they are the very questions that motivate contemporary discourse on photography; they are the questions that have forced photographic practice and theory to think and to create.

One way that I can imagine Morris addressing these issues is through a more nuanced and extended engagement with Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). Morris begins his first chapter with a quotation from Sontag regarding Fenton’s photograph(s) The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855). He explains that Sontag’s statement that Fenton “staged” the second of the two photographs (the one with the cannonballs on the road) and her presumption to know the sequence of the photographs troubled him. He wants to ask how Sontag knew the second photograph was “staged” and thereby determined the correct sequence. To say it troubled him is no exaggeration. Morris smartly begins the book with an anecdote that in many ways sets the tone for his project: his friend asks him, “you mean to tell me that you went all the way to the Crimea because of one sentence written by Susan Sontag?” to which Morris quips, “No, it was actually two sentences.” So begins Morris’s quest to challenge Sontag’s statements on Fenton. He tracks down her sources, interviews museum curators, skirts complex issues like the relation of the image to the caption, travels to the Crimea and photographs the site as it currently exists (eerily unchanged), and enlists forensic photography experts to attest to the photographs’ veracity and to resolve the discrepancy over the sequence. (As it turns out, Sontag was correct in her assumptions, as were historians of photography Ulrich Keller and Mark Haworth-Booth.)

The point Morris misses, I believe, is that Sontag is not arguing in Regarding the Pain of Others against “staging” photographs. In fact, Morris’s conclusions about the inevitability of “staging” in photography and, more crucially perhaps, about the absolute necessity of every viewer engaging in an act of interpretation that is at once epistemological, aesthetic, and ethical when in the midst of a “documentary” photograph were already articulated in subtle and challenging ways by Sontag herself in her discussion of Jeff Wall’s “staged” photograph Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986) (1992). Here I will not go into the details of Sontag’s use of Wall in her book. But I mention it only to sharply contrast it with Morris’s conclusion on this issue: “And even if Sontag is right, namely that Fenton moved the cannonballs to telegraph the horrors of war, what’s so bad about that? Why does moralizing about ‘posing’ take precedence—moral precedence—over moralizing about the carnage of war? Is purism of the photography police blinding them to the human tragedy the cannonballs represent?” (70–71) Simply put, this is not at all what Sontag argues either in those fine passages on images and memory or in her choice to end her book with Wall’s “visionary photo-work,” as she calls it.

Other blind spots make their presence felt in Believing Is Seeing. From Fenton to Abu Ghraib to the concluding chapter “Whose Father Is He?” which is about a famous Civil War ambrotype, Morris offers a meditation on photography, memory, death, and history. However, throughout this meditation he does not mention or cite any of the flashpoints of photographic theory, most notably Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (Trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang,1981), Vilèm Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), Jacques Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator (Trans. Gregory Elliott, London: Verso, 2009), Georges Didi-Huberman’s Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) (click here for review), or Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2008) (click here for review). Nor does Morris refer to Walter Benjamin’s comment that Eugène Atget’s photographs suggest “the scene of a crime.” This is not to demand that every book reverently nod at a series of precedents or grands hommes. But it is to demand that books on photography, even those written for a broad audience as Morris’s may be, acknowledge and engage with contemporary photographic discourse in some way. The authors I have mentioned all share terrain with Morris by addressing questions about photography’s decontextualization, its relation to space and time, modes of address, structures of intention, aesthetic and epistemological effects, and so on. More often than not, their work begins with the conclusions Morris reaches. While Morris accepts that “observations in science are not independent of theory but are, on the contrary, quite dependent on it,” he forecloses the same relation between art theory and practice (81). Avoiding an engagement with art-historical and theoretical precedents ultimately enables Morris to begin and end with commonplaces about photography, representation, and temporality.

With that said, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that the strength of Morris’s interest and even his “procedure” is best conveyed in the second and third chapters, which deal with the abuses and crimes committed at Abu Ghraib in Iraq by the United States. In the third chapter Morris investigates the “smile” on Harman’s face in a photograph with the murdered corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi. My reading here was compelled, disturbing, and ethically charged in part because of the subject matter and the feverish desire to know—precisely Morris’s motivation for his book as a whole—what happened at the prison, but also in part because he avoids summarizing the complex material presented. This short chapter is best taken as an afterword to the investigation of the events in the Abu Ghraib prison that Morris undertook in his documentary film Standard Operating Procedure (2008). Here the book makes best use of Morris’s penchant for presenting large chunks of transcribed interviews, which is a recurring practice in his New York Times Opinionator blog as well. However, in book form these transcriptions of interviews are not framed and their contents not interpreted. Instead, Morris presents them to the reader as one would present legal direct examination: question and answer. If he doesn’t like the answer, then he simply asks someone else.

It is only here at the heart of Believing Is Seeing that Morris’s earlier statement about Fenton resonates: “History is always incomplete” (71). One cannot help but agree, even as one recoils at Morris’s complementary statement about a photograph being “one timeless instant of time” (180). Is it not through discourse, interpretation, the acts of viewing and re-viewing that we construct complex relations with an image—relations that link an image to another present and yet another, thereby opening the images and, by extension, ourselves to unforeseen futures? Moreover, does not each image demand an encounter that forces us to differentiate what is designated (as in represented) from what is signified (as in a singularity that differentiates itself, becomes other in time)? As Gilles Deleuze writes: “What is in the present is whatever the image ‘represents’, but not the image itself. The image itself is a bunch of temporal relations from which the present unfolds. . . . Temporal relations are never seen in ordinary perception, but they can be seen in the image, provided the image is creative. The image renders visible . . . the temporal relations which cannot be reduced to the present” (Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975–1995, ed. David Lapoujade, trans. Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina, New York: Semiotext(e), 2007, 295). It is for this reason, among others, that Morris missed an important opportunity to discuss art photography, creative images by photographers such as Wall or Candida Höfer. Such a line of inquiry would have forced him to begin in the middle, in the midst of images, and assert then that, “Truth in photography is an elusive notion,” rather than end up there (194).

Jae Emerling
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of North Carolina, Charlotte