Brain Pickings

Believing Is Seeing: Errol Morris Unravels the Greatest Mysteries of Photojournalism

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What Susan Sontag has to do with Twitter hoaxes and the untold stories of WPA propaganda.

Besides being an Academy-Award-winning filmmaker and a MacArthur “Genius,” Errol Morris is also one of the keenest observers of contemporary culture and human nature. Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography), out today, brings together his great gifts in an extraordinary effort to untangle the mysteries behind some of the world’s most iconic documentary photographs, inviting you on “an excursion into the labyrinth of the past and into the fabric of reality.”

The title of the book comes from Morris’s 2008 New York Times story, in which he first took a close look at the history and future of doctored photographs in the digital age.

From the Civil War to Abu Ghraib to WPA-era propaganda, Morris approached each photograph like a mystery story and went to remarkable lengths to get to its bottom. More than a mere curiosity-tickler for history buffs, his findings and insights are both timeless and timelier than ever when the same issues — manipulation, censorship, authenticity, journalistic ethics — ebb to the forefront of our collective conscience in an age when photojournalism is both more accessible and messier than ever before.

Susan Sontag famously accused Roger Fenton of staging the cannonballs in The Valley of the Shadow of Death, his iconic photograph of the Crimean War. In the age of Photoshop, even staging is too big a bother — all it takes are a few clicks of the mouse, or maybe just a misleading tweet. (Thousands of people duped by faux Irene shark photo last weekend, I’m looking at you.)

Kathryn Schulz has a fantastic, thoughtful review in The New York Times — highly recommended.

A feat of investigative inquiry woven together by Morris’s delicate but cunning threads of cultural criticism, Believing Is Seeing is an absolute masterpiece of rigorous nonfiction that pulls you in like the best of mystery fiction.

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