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kottke.org posts about Coleman Lowndes

Was This Famous War Photo Staged?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2020

In 2007, Errol Morris wrote a three-part series for the NY Times about a pair of photos taken by Roger Fenton of the Crimean War in 1855. Taken from the same position on the same day, one of the photographs shows cannonballs scattered on a road while in the other photo, the road is clear of cannonballs. Which one, Morris wondered, was taken first and why?

I spent a considerable amount of time looking at the two photographs and thinking about the two sentences. Sontag, of course, does not claim that Fenton altered either photograph after taking them — only that he altered or “staged” the second photograph by altering the landscape that was photographed. This much seems clear. But how did Sontag know that Fenton altered the landscape or, for that matter, “oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs on the road itself?”

His three posts about these photographs are a fascinating exposition on truth and evidence — I posted about them back when he wrote them, saying of part one that “this might be the best blog post I’ve ever read” — and I recommend you read them, but the next best thing is watching the video above in which Vox Darkroom’s Coleman Lowndes talks with Morris about the mystery of the photos and how he arrived at a conclusion.