How Errol Morris Became Obsessed with — and Figured Out — the Truth of a Famous War Photograph

Errol Mor­ris did­n’t go all the way to the Crimean Penin­su­la just because of a sen­tence writ­ten by Susan Son­tag. “No,” he once explained to a friend, “it was actu­al­ly two sen­tences.” Found in Regard­ing the Pain of Oth­ers, Son­tag’s late book-length essay on war pho­tog­ra­phy, these lines deal with the fact that “many of the canon­i­cal images of ear­ly war pho­tog­ra­phy turn out to have been staged, or to have had their sub­jects tam­pered with.” Take Val­ley of the Shad­ow of Death, pio­neer­ing war pho­tog­ra­ph­er Roger Fen­ton’s famous­ly des­o­late 1855 image from the Crimean War. Fen­ton actu­al­ly shot this land­scape twice: in one pic­ture, “can­non­balls are thick on the ground to the left of the road, but before tak­ing the sec­ond pic­ture — the one that is always repro­duced — he over­saw the scat­ter­ing of the can­non­balls on the road itself.”

Or did he? Mor­ris had his doubts — and, as the mak­er of such acclaimed doc­u­men­taries on the nature of truth and its rep­re­sen­ta­tion as The Thin Blue Line and Stan­dard Oper­at­ing Pro­ce­dure and the author of the book Believ­ing is See­ing: Obser­va­tions on the Mys­ter­ies of Pho­tog­ra­phyhe clear­ly has an intel­lec­tu­al invest­ment in the sub­ject.

“I spent a con­sid­er­able amount of time look­ing at the two pho­tographs and think­ing about the two sen­tences,” Mor­ris writes in a 2007 New York Times blog post. “How did Son­tag know that Fen­ton altered the land­scape or, for that mat­ter, ‘over­saw the scat­ter­ing of the can­non­balls on the road itself?’ ” How, for that mat­ter, “did Son­tag know the sequence of the pho­tographs? How did she know which pho­to­graph came first?”

Unable to turn up any per­sua­sive evi­dence, Mor­ris launched an inves­ti­ga­tion of his own, inter­view­ing experts, dig­ging into Fen­ton’s let­ters, and even­tu­al­ly mak­ing his way to the Val­ley of the Shad­ow of Death itself (not to be con­fused with the oth­er, bet­ter-known val­ley across which Ten­nyson’s Light Brigade charged). All of this Mor­ris did in the name of find­ing out which came first, the pho­to with the can­non­balls beside the road, or the one with the can­non­balls on the road. You can hear him dis­cuss this increas­ing­ly obses­sive quest for the truth in the video above from Vox’s Dark­room, the series that pre­vi­ous­ly gave us a break­down of the very first faked pho­to­graph. But then, as this and oth­er inves­ti­ga­tions by Mor­ris into the rela­tion­ship between images, lan­guage, and real­i­ty have under­scored, there is no such thing as a true pho­to­graph.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Errol Mor­ris: Two Essen­tial Truths About Pho­tog­ra­phy

Errol Mor­ris Med­i­tates on the Mean­ing and His­to­ry of Abra­ham Lincoln’s Last Pho­to­graph

How the “First Pho­to­jour­nal­ist,” Math­ew Brady, Shocked the Nation with Pho­tos from the Civ­il War

Why the Sovi­ets Doc­tored Their Most Icon­ic World War II Vic­to­ry Pho­to, “Rais­ing a Flag Over the Reich­stag”

The First Faked Pho­to­graph (1840)

Errol Mor­ris Makes His Ground­break­ing Series, First Per­son, Free to Watch Online: Binge Watch His Inter­views with Genius­es, Eccentrics, Obses­sives & Oth­er Unusu­al Types

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Gerald Woods says:

    I am inter­est­ed in why Mr. Mor­ris doesn’t men­tion one log­i­cal expla­na­tion for the two pho­tographs. If the can­non­balls were fired into the area, they would have been scat­tered over the ter­rain, includ­ing on the road. All would not have missed the road. It would be rea­son­able to expect that the can­non­balls would be removed to clear the road for trav­el. Now, if Mr. Mor­ris learned that the can­non­balls were by the road­side for anoth­er rea­son, his expla­na­tion is more mean­ing­ful.

  • Gerald Woods says:

    One addi­tion­al com­ment: If the pho­tog­ra­ph­er arrived at the scene after the road had been cleared of can­non­balls, he could have had some­one move some back onto the road to depict a for­mer real­i­ty, in which case the ensu­ing pho­to­graph would have been staged. In any event, Mr. Mor­ris’ expla­na­tion still leaves me won­der­ing about the truth

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