26 September 2007

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Early last summer I wrote a couple of posts, here and here, that raised issues of sequencing of photographs. In The New York Times today you can find this long, fair-minded, detailed essay attempt to determine the sequencing issues surrounding the famous image James Fenton made of the 'Valley of the Shado of Death' during the Crimean War. The published version appears above, but there also is a second version shown below.

Roger Fenton. Valley of The Shadow of Death (Two Versions).
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center,
The University of Texas at Austin.

Note the difference is that in the published version the landscape, especiallly the road, is strewn with cannon balls. This has led to charges that Fenton had manipulated the image by spreading the cannon balls about to enhance the effect of his photograph. One prominent proponent of this view is Susan Sontag, but she invokes others in making her case. (For another example, see my post on this essay by Geoff Dyer from The Guardian.) The author of The Times essay, film-maker Errol Morris, pursues the matter resolutely and seems skeptical of the Sontag, et. al. view. In so doing he raises several crucial matters:

(1) How should we understand the possibility of photographic manipulation as an historical phenomenon. In other words, are photo-shop, etc. qualitatively different threats to photographic veracity?

(2) How should we understand the intimate relationship between photographers or other journalists and the (often military) organizations with whom they work?

(3) What is the role of intention in the making of photographs? In our subsequent assessments of them? (The leads to a considerably less pressing matter regarding the 'bravery' or whatever of photographers. I am not terribly interested in questions of character in that sense.)

While he seems skeptical of those who deride Fenton, Morris ends this installment inconclusively and leaves readers with a challenge: "I would like to propose a contest to the Times’ readership — an invitation to order the photographs and to propose reasons why they must be in that order. Anything is fair game. Any kind of evidence may be considered, and I will discuss the solutions in a followup article. Good luck!"

P.S.: This essay is one of a series that Morris is publishing in The Times.

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