A Tale of Photographs and History

cannonballs

Errol Morris presents a very intriguing puzzle in his analysis of two similar photographs from the Crimean War taken by Roger Fenton in 1855.  One of the two pictures was famously entitled, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” and was widely viewed in its day.  For Morris, this photograph and its companion image (which was either shot first or second – that is the mystery to solve) sum up the meaning and challenges of photography to the study of history.  Morris takes readers on a lengthy journey of his investigation and invites them to contribute their own interpretations of the two contrasting photographs in a piece published in the New York Times called, “Which Came First?”

Photographs are powerful sources of primary historical evidence.  They are uniquely challenging as they give viewers a sense of immediacy and carry an emotional power, being processed in a different part of the brain from language.  Yet, the possibility of manipulation is ever-present, as Morris astutely observes in his essay on Fenton’s photographs and a second essay entitled, “Photography as a Weapon.”  Here are some such ways:  (1) photographs always exclude things, just as they include other things; (2) they can be manipulated physically; or (3) their meaning can be manipulated by accompanying captions and (4) they can involve posing of elements within the frame.

The Crimea photographs create numerous questions.  Why are there cannonballs along the road in one photograph that appear in the gully in the other photograph?  Which scene was manipulated?  An argument can be made for either case.  Did Fenton want to give a sense of the devastation of the scene by showing a littering of cannonballs prominently on the road or did their metallic surfaces under certain lighting conditions create a more visually appealing effect against the road as compared with the gully?  Or did he clear the road of the cannonballs to show a sense of desolation?

Morris is interested in the intentions of the photographer, the nature of photography as evidence and the connection between photographs and reality.  A number of people along his journey of exploration make assumptions and assertions about Fenton’s photographs, revealing that nothing is ever as obvious as it may seem.  Intriguingly, photographs store data that can be interpreted differently by different viewers in the present as well as in the past.  Interestingly, these questions do not change from 1855 to 2013, even though we have more sophisticated technologies to investigate old photographs and manipulate new ones.  It will probably be impossible to invent technologies that will answer all historical riddles, including this particular one.

What do we take from all of this?  When I first learned of the manipulation of photographs of battlefields from the Civil War era (e.g. Matthew Brady’s pictures), I was disturbed.  I thought photographs were more pure than things like subjective, written accounts.  As I learned about the developing craft of photography and the ways in which early photographers were working out how to represent what they were experiencing, I became less concerned and more intrigued by new layers of complexity.  I guess I was seeing the importance of motivation that Morris wrestles with.  It’s one thing to move cannonballs to suggest a false sense of devastation in an un-devastated area, it’s another to create a more aesthetically interesting image that shows that it really was the scene of devastation.

At the end of the day, a photograph can tell multiple stories as Fenton’s two images certainly do.  There’s what was actually there in the valley and there was what Fenton was doing and why that resulted in his two differing shots.  Perhaps our digital technologies will continue to develop to help us peel back the layers of what we literally see in a photograph and what its context is.  Our historical thinking skills will still be needed, no matter how sophisticated our software grows.  Morris shows us that we need to stay on our toes and not accept assumptions about photographs as evidence, but not just to avoid being manipulated – other insights into the past may be waiting to be found.

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