Sunday, November 4, 2007

Cannonball Express

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has written a fascinating three-part series for the New York Times on the Crimean War photography of Roger Fenton (shown here -- clearly a man who loved stripes; see my post of 27 April 2007).

The series focuses on two photos taken by Fenton on 23 April 1855, both called "The Valley of the Shadow of Death." In one, cannonballs litter the side of a road leading to Sevastopol (the "OFF" photo); in the other, the cannonballs are on the road itself (the "ON" photo).

Morris takes issue with Susan Sontag's reading of the photos in her last published book, Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003). Sontag asserted that Fenton found the road devoid of cannonballs and moved them there from the side of the road to create a sense of drama and danger.

At question in Morris's series: which of the photos was taken first and whether one of them was staged (if so, which one and why). To find an answer, Morris travels to the Crimea and consults various experts, including a "sun and shadow position specialist." His conclusion? Let's just say that a provisional answer is found in that most basic force of nature: gravity.

The series is also an interesting commentary on battleground tourism and an instructive case study for those of us who use photographic evidence to build historical arguments.


High-resolution version of Fenton’s OFF photo.

High-resolution version of Fenton’s ON photo.

The Roger Fenton Crimean War Photographs collection (Library of Congress) has historical and biographical information along with 263 images.

"All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860" is an overview of the National Gallery of Art’s 2004 exhibition of the same name. The catalogue is available on Amazon.

Roger Fenton's Letters from the Crimea (De Montfort University)

Ulrich Keller, The Ultimate Spectacle: A Visual History of the Crimean War (Routledge, 2001)


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