cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

PHOTOGRAPHY ESSAY ERROL MORRIS On Roger Fenton’s 2 Crimean War photographs titled ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ taken 0n 23 April 1855

















{1}




Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? (Part One)


Errol Morris, NYT, 25 September 2007.


Starts with Susan Sontag on Fenton. Canvasses expert opinion. Gets down to the question of ordering the photographs without considering Fenton’s ‘intentions or beliefs’. Morris mentions there is an archive of Roger Fenton’s letters from the Crimea


Part 2


Errol arrives in Sebastopol to look for himself. We get to see maps at last.


Part 3


blog posts on


Who’s Zooming Who?
–Errol Morris’ obsessive investigation of a Roger Fenton photograph.


But Which Thousand Words is the Picture Worth?


Jim Lewis in Slate, 1 November 2007. Notable mainly for working out that the three-part essay plus comment stream is slightly longer than Moby Dick. Guess he would hate Bela Tarr’s Satantango.


Béla Tarr’s Long Takes (an education in film)


FILM Satantango (Sátántangó) by Béla Tarr {2}


Photography


wiki: Roger Fenton


N.B. mentions that Fenton’s equipment limited him to posed photos and landscapes because of the long exposures needed.


Roger Fenton – the first war photographer


Post in Slugger O’Toole blog • Gives background of Fenton himself • His photographic techniques • Crimean adventure, which lasted for 3 months from mid-march 1855 to mid-June 1855 • Under what auspices he went there • Limitations he was under


Crimean War Photographs by Roger Fenton March-June 1855


First photo is canon balls on road [ON]


My comments


The two photos above are not Fenton’s. But in one you can clearly see men standing amongst canon balls in a road not dissimilar to The valley of the Shadow of Death. Difficult to see but looks like one man has a big canon ball on his shoulder.

The fun of Errol’s story is he’s determined to solve it all from the photos. That’s all you’ve allowed. (He then can’t resit popping over to walk up and down dusty Crimean tracks himself with his girlfriend in tow…and who can blame him. I’d’ve been there before the developing fluid had dried).

Of course, in real life the wider context – things beyond one set of evidence – is always examined – what usually goes on in an area to make the specific event in time and space different or similar. Here, there are 2 photos known to have been taken within an hour or two of each other according to the photographer. As Morris says, its the first movie.

Let’s talk movies for a moment for light relief from 25 lb canon balls. Godard in his long interview, Fragments of Conversations with Jean-Luc Godard, talks about the famous footage of a little Palestinian girl standing in the ruins of Carmel near Haifa declaiming a famous poem, I will Resist, by Mahmoud Darwish, that Godard uses in his film Ici et Ailleurs. They are discussing authentic or inauthentic. It’s given the thumps up even if it’s staged.

There is no story without the two canon ball photos, OFF and ON. If ON had been the only one (maybe Fenton destroys OFF), who’d then or now be discussing canon balls in the Crimea? I wonder if the strength of the message was destroyed (whether or not it was staged) by seeing OFF as well as ON. Very few keen eyes would be questioning whether the balls on the road in ON where not randomly enough distributed.

Erroll did another essay on photography Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire (NYT 10 July 2007). This one on Fenton’s Crimean canon balls is fun because there were two photos. The main challenge for Errol: to decide which was the before and which the after. (Kids of a certain age could have great fun with this. 7-8 years old would be perfect. They love those cartoon before and after pictures.)

Not surprisingly, in the end the story strays into the realms of conjecture based on such unreliable things as what humans would be expected to do. Well, despite high-tech tools, the analyst he has asked to look at the photographs inevitably strays into this territory because there isn’t really enough to work on. Errol is keener to stick the the original premise: What can can be deduced from the photographs alone. He wants to avoid:

…arguing that to interpret a picture we need more than the picture itself..



Commenter crazymonk way down in the comments has posted links to enlargements of OFF and ON photos, with the idea to open them in adjoining tabs and flick between the two to see the rock movement:

OFF
ON


I don’t find it very easy to see the rocks moving, but very easy to see balls moving. One ball in the centre foreground disappears in ON. Three balls in the left foreground move. In enlarge (clicking the plus sign on your cursor over pic) it’s very easy to see one ball on the right of the track at 2 O’clock – just in front of a small rock outcrop – appear on the track no more that 1 metre or so SW of it’s original position. The more you click the more you see displacements. Right in the centre of the photograph in the ditch full of balls, three more appear in ON. In OFF there are a bunch of 9 in the mid- foreground





which are joined by by two more, here, for example, next to the little rock




one carefully placed to its right between two others, above and below it, in OFF. So they are not only going on the road itself, but more have been added to the ditch! The more you look the more you see. Above this group three balls appear in ON that weren’t there in OFF.

Has the man posting these photos in the comments been up to no good, moving balls digitally to pass away long lonely evenings when there was noting worth watching on t.v.? Few of us reading Errol on Crimean Canon Balls are looking at the original prints but digital copies! There is no certainty the digital versions are exactly the same as the real prints. Even the one in the Fenton digital archives might not be identical to the original. Even more important, will people in the future ever be able to tell what was going on in photographs with any certainty as more digital copies are produced?


This is another one of Fenton’s. No, no, no don’t start counting those. Maybe there is only one of these.





Oh, by the way, yes that’s Roger Fenton the man himself posing at the top. I deliberately didn’t put his name there, so that you’d see the posed shot, read the long essay, then see canon ball photos, and – like in clever films which use a technique of inserting a shot which is only explained much further on (My favourite, mentioned more than once in my posts is the bird of prey swooping on the white chickens at the beginning of Kieslowski’s Camera Buff) – think about the posing Fenton when thinking about his Crimean balls.

Surely this self-portrait is the sort of evidence we also need to decide whether the canon balls were moved ON to create a more artsy shot. For me there no need for rock movement analysis really. If there are 9 balls in one cluster in the OFF ditch and 11 in the ON ditch, that says they were moved there as well as those onto the road itself. Simply because another fusillade from the Russian batteries would probably have sent dozens of new balls into the area. It does say somewhere that they regularly shot up on to the road whether there were troop movements or not, just to act as discouragement to try.

As is apparent from the Morris essay and other sources, Fenton’s stock in trade was posed photos of the military personnel and landscapes, both suited to long exposures needed.

It’s still a great war photograph even if it was posed.



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March 7, 2012 - Posted by | Errol Morris, photographic analysis, photography, Richard Pare, Roger Fenton, Susan Sontag, Ulrich Keller | , , , ,

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