Errol Morris has posted the third and final installment of his quest to find out which of two Roger Fenton photographs taken during the Crimean War came first. It is as excellent (and lengthy) as the first and second parts. Morris asks “How can the real world be recovered from the simulacrum?” and arrives at a compelling answer (which I won’t give away here) via sun-maps, shadow experts, The Wisconsin Death-Trip Effect, and ultimately, the Dust-Plunging-Straight-Down Test.
It is insane, but I would like to make the claim that the meaning of photography is contained in these two images. By thinking about the Fenton photographs we are essentially thinking about some of the most vexing issues in photography — about posing, about the intentions of the photographer, about the nature of photographic evidence — about the relationship between photographs and reality.
Morris’ posts make me a bit sad though. Yes, because the series is concluded but also for two other reasons:
1. Morris’ investigation sticks out like a sore thumb, especially compared to most popular media (newspapers, magazines, blogs, TV news). Why isn’t Morris’ level of skepticism and doggedness the norm rather than the delightful exception? Choosing the easy answer or the first answer that seems right enough is certainly compelling, especially under limited time constraints. Once acquired, that easy answer often becomes tied up with the ego of the person holding the belief…i.e. “this answer is correct because I think it’s right because I’m smart and not easily duped and it proves the point I’m trying to make and therefore this answer is correct”. Morris encountered dozens of easy and plausibly correct answers and rejected them all based on a lack of evidence, which allowed him to finally arrive at a correct answer supported by compelling physical evidence.
2. At the same time, lessons in photography and philosophy aside, what did we really learn? In the course of this investigation, Morris spent dozens of hours, wrote thousands of words, flew to Ukraine, enlisted the help of several experts, and probably spent thousands of dollars. Based on seemingly insignificant details, he was able to determine that one photograph was taken slightly before another photograph. If so much energy was put into the discovery of that one small fact, how are we actually supposed to learn anything truthful about larger and more significant events like the Iraq War or global warming. Presumably there’s more evidence to go on, but that’s not always helpful. Does this completely bum anyone else the fuck out?