In the brutally hot summer of 1936, Arthur Rothstein, a young photographer working for a branch of the Farm Security Administration, made a series of images that soon took on a bizarre life of their own.
They were photos of a sun-bleached cow skull resting in a bone-dry corner of South Dakota, one of several drought-decimated states during the Dust Bowl era. The wider reality they alluded to, of a natural catastrophe wreaking havoc on America’s farmers and tearing at the nation’s social fabric, was undeniably, frighteningly real.
But within days of their publication in newspapers across the country, the photos’ “authenticity” was being mocked and challenged by skeptics who claimed that Rothstein had repeatedly posed the skull, like a stage prop, possibly to drum up support for Franklin Roosevelt’s big-government spending programs.
To learn how this political, journalistic and aesthetic brouhaha played out, and whether Rothstein himself or those claiming “fake” were in fact twisting the visual evidence, you’ll want to read Errol Morris’ brain-teasing, occasionally unsettling new book, Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography.
To general readers, at whom this book is aimed, Morris is familiar as the Oscar-winning director of haunting, enigmatic documentary feature films. His subject matter varies from the case of a wrongly convicted Texas death-row inmate (The Thin Blue Line) to the rueful ruminations of former U.S. Secretary of Defense and Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara (The Fog of War) to the truth behind the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure) to a Fleet Street tale of an alleged sexual-kidnapping scandal (Tabloid).
Yet running through all of Morris’ movies, as an obsessive leitmotif, are questions about the misleading nature of visual representation, the ethical shadows lurking in the margins of the picture frame or the movie still, the myriad ways in which we interpret images selectively to confirm our pre-existing biases.
Virtually never seen on-camera, Morris as an interviewer typically adopts an attitude that suggests a film noir detective or forensic scientist with a PhD in philosophy. He’s an erudite gumshoe, weighing the facts, now and then interjecting a wisecracking observation, always more intent on exposing his subjects’ (and the audience’s) blind spots than on arriving at comforting conclusions. Moral ambiguity is his metier; enlightened doubtfulness is his default mode.
In Believing Is Seeing, Morris again assumes his sphinx-like stance, posing endless riddles and rhetorical questions throughout the six thematically concentric essays that make up the book. (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, Morris sweetens his narrative with enough of his own quirky personality and humorous fixations to keep his book from reading like a set of art-historical police reports.
Suitably, two chapters deal with episodes from photography’s infancy and adolescence and one with its commercial and cultural heyday in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Three others dive head-first into the moral and aesthetic abyss of photography and photojournalism in the age of Photoshop.
His opening chapter recounts the fascinating, long-running debate over whether the esteemed British photographer Roger Fenton artfully rearranged clusters of Russian cannonballs on a desolate road to create his famous, iconic shot of a Crimean War landscape. A Susan Sontag essay asserting that Fenton did in fact stage this chilling vision of arbitrary death in April 1855 sets Morris’ restless mind in motion.
He solicits expert testimony from the likes of Mark Haworth-Booth, former curator of photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Eventually he journeys to the Black Sea region to attempt to mentally reconstruct the conditions in which Fenton produced his famous pictures, complete with elaborate scientific explanations of how the way that light reflecting off a cannonball might indicate the time of day and direction from which Fenton’s images were shot.
There’s purpose to Morris’ playful mix of the prurient and the pedantic (as he puts it), and if his Sam Spade labors ultimately fail to resolve certain factual disputes, well, that’s sort of the point. As he summarizes one of his book’s central tenets: “The concepts of naturalness, authenticity, and posing are all slippery slopes that when carefully examined become hopelessly vague.”
In the concluding essay, “Whose Father Is He?,” Morris similarly revisits a long-ago visual crime scene, so to speak. This time it’s the Gettysburg battlefield of July 1863, where among the thousands of dead was an otherwise unidentifiable Union soldier clutching in his hand an ambrotype of three young children. The story of the ensuing inquiry into the fallen patriot’s identity is a shaggy-dog tale with a gothic-horror twist.
So in a way are Morris’ probings of the stomach-churning acts committed by US troops at Abu Ghraib. Although much of the material presented here was previously laid out in Standard Operating Procedure, Morris’ assertion that the repellent photos of soldiers leering over an Iraqi corpse helped camouflage the crimes’ higher-ranking perpetrators is an argument that warrants retelling — and national soul-searching.
Parts of Believing Is Seeing suffer from repetitiousness, as Morris repeatedly reiterates and embellishes his trompe l’oeil theories of human consciousness. Substantial sections of the book are given over to word-for-word transcripts with his interviewees, including some long-winded digressions that would’ve been better left aside.
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.
“With the advent of photography, images are torn free from the world, snatched from the fabric of reality, and enshrined as separate entities; they become more like dreams,” Morris writes. “It is no wonder that we really don’t know how to deal with them.”