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Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography

Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris explores the nature of truth in photographs.

October 25, 2011

Errol Morris asks whether tampering with photographs – like moving cannonballs near a battlefield – matters, and if so, how and why? (Believing Is Seeing By Errol Morris Penguin Group 336 pp.)

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By Tess Taylor for The Barnes & Noble Review

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At the beginning of Believing is Seeing, an eye-opening book about how images come to have meaning, MacArthur-winning filmmaker Errol Morris reveals that he's got a strabismus, a condition that misaligns his sight. Two eye-images that normally resolve into one unified field of vision are always, for him, slightly separate. For Morris, who literally sees "both ways," sight is never simple. He uses his condition as a jumping-off point for a nuanced exploration of how photographs – especially those we most entrust with showing us truths – simultaneously reveal and conceal. Commenting on now-iconic photographs of soldiers and torture victims at Abu Ghraib, The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh wrote, "the photographs tell it all." But what, asks Morris, are the "it" and the "all"? How is the telling done?

Those who have had the luck to fall under the spell of Errol Morris's films already know what sidelong worlds he documents. Gates of Heaven, a classic from the late 1970s, takes on the subject of pet cemeteries, exploring the odd business of interring our beloved furry dead through the experience of a family who not only runs a pet cemetery but also buries its deceased pets there. The Thin Blue Line, a study in the fragility of human justice, re-enacts a Texas murder case that led to the wrong man spending 12 years in jail. And in the recent The Fog of War, Morris talks to Robert McNamara about the decisions he made as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2003.

In each film, Morris displays his genius for allowing people to reveal themselves in haunting and muddy complexity. Something as seemingly kooky as watching a family-run pet-burial business turns into a profound meditation on the human search for meaning. Morris manages to take people's banalities, pedantries, and prejudices, and turn them into art. And he does so with a master's touch: Just at the very moment I think I might be bored I find, to my surprise, that I'm actually utterly fascinated.

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