kottke.org posts about rogerfenton

Errol Morris finale on the Roger Fenton photographsOct 24 2007

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?

In hopes of solving a mystery aboutOct 05 2007

In hopes of solving a mystery about two photographs taken by Roger Fenton during the Crimean War (which I mentioned last week), Errol Morris travels to Crimea to track down the spot at which Fenton took the photos, aided by Olga, a guide who had once led the Duke of Edinburgh around the area.

Furthermore, what do the shadows on a cannonball, a Crimean cannonball, circa 1850, really look like -- not in a Fenton photograph but sitting alone, unadorned in the Valley of the Shadow of Death 150 years later? Olga seemed amused. I am not a great believer in certainty, but I am pretty certain the Duke of Edinburgh never asked to go to the Panorama Museum to borrow a Crimean War cannonball.

Errol Morris writes several hundred words aboutSep 28 2007

Errol Morris writes several hundred words about two iconic photos taken by Roger Fenton during the Crimean War, during which he explores the interplay between "clear" evidence and the interpretation of that evidence by people with different agendas and ideas.

As I've said elsewhere: Nothing is so obvious that it's obvious. When someone says that something is obvious, it seems almost certain that it is anything but obvious - even to them. The use of the word "obvious" indicates the absence of a logical argument - an attempt to convince the reader by asserting the truth of something by saying it a little louder.

This might be the best blog post I've ever read. I can't wait to see Standard Operating Procedure, Morris' upcoming documentary on Abu Ghraib and, from what it sounds like, the culmination of his exploration of truth in photography.

Tags related to rogerfenton:
war photography Errol Morris

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