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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