Seeing Is Believing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) by Errol Morris, The Penguin Press, 310 pages, $40. It was the enduring brilliance of Susan Sontag that when she wrote HER classic "observations on the mysteries of photography," there were, famously, no photographs reproduced in the book. It was a book of thought, a long essay composed of smaller essays.
But then Sontag was one of the reigning intellectuals of her era. Long after her death, Errol Morris is an entirely different sort from Sontag -- a filmmaker of notable peculiarity, which in Morris' case might be defined as eccentricity raised to the third power. Morris' latest film in theaters was the recent "Tabloid," about a Mormon man who was either forced to be a sex slave in England by an overwrought American woman or a willing sex partner of an obsessed lover.
Nor surprisingly, Morris' book, unlike Sontag's classic "On Photography," is a beautiful piece of book design illustrating Morris' selected photographs. "The essays in this book should be seen as a collection of mystery stories," he tells us, answering the questions "Who are these people? Why was their photograph taken? What are they thinking? What can they tell us about ourselves?"
Two of Sontag's sentences in another book sent Morris to the Crimea to investigate a photograph by British photographer Roger Fenton. Before he's finished, he provides the identity of the hooded man in the famous photograph from Abu Ghraib and explores the gruesomely merry expression on the face of an American soldier contemplating a dead man. And examines the work of the famous Depression documentary photographers Arthur Rothsteiin and Walker Evans. And more.
The book ends with what Morris tells us is a rare photo of him "from my wedding, between two prostitution cases in Brooklyn criminal court." And taken by friend Tom Waits. A rare man Errol Morris.
- Jeff Simon