The Taser's Edge


Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) by Errol Morris

I was elated when I heard that Errol Morris was coming out with this book, even when all I knew about it was the title and the author. (Fog of War is only one of the must-watch documentaries Morris is responsible for.) And the book exceeded my expectations.

Believing is Seeing is not so much about photography as it is about whether objectivity is possible (or desirable), about what and how and whether we can know, about history and memory, about how our expectations create our observations in things small and enormous. It’s not even that I agree with all his arguments (and, in fact, I found myself dissatisfied at the end of perhaps half of his photo essays), but he is an original thinker who helps others think, and that makes this book worth reading and re-reading.

There are six essays, each based around a photograph or set of photographs which have caused problems of interpretation, often with the help of mass media, but just as often with the help of historians and other scholars. Then Morris gathers interviewees and experts and other data and begins thinking through the puzzle.

The photography is great, the history is great, the interviewees are great, the anecdotes are great, the analysis is great, the prose is great. What more do you want? Excerpts?:

I also remember reading an account of October 28, 1962–the last night of the Cuban missile crisis, when many knowledgeable people thought the world would end. Khrushchev had not yet capitulated and Kennedy was poised for nuclear war. Khrushchev was in Moscow, Kennedy in Washington. We know what Khrushchev was doing from the accounts written by his son, Sergei. Khrushchev was so worried about the possibility of nuclear war that he spent a sleepless night and then announced his decision to remove the missiles from Cuba over Radio Moscow the following morning so that it could be broadcast to the entire world without delay. On the same night, Kennedy was down by the White House pool with his aide, Dave Powers, and two girlfriends watching Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. What a story. Hepburn, heir to some unspecified throne, dreams of being free of the obligations of state, but in the end knows she must return to the requirements of the monarchy. That die, too, was cast. It was a fantasy within a fantasy within the reality of the White House.

and, in a later essay…

A photograph can capture a patch of reality, but it can also leave a strange footprint: an impression of an instantly lost past around which memories collect.

The best way to get a taste of this book also happens to be about JFK. Last week, on the anniversary of the President’s assassination, Errol Morris created a short documentary for The New York Times called “The Umbrella Man.” The way the documentary winds around, altering your mind and surprising you in the process, is the way each essay in this book works.

Here’s the link to the NY Times “Op-doc.” Here’s the link to buy Morris’ book. Here’s the link to his website. Get clickin.’

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