Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

(To see Part Two of this article, click here. To see Part Three, click here.)

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow…

— T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

“You mean to tell me that you went all the way to the Crimea because

of one sentence written by Susan Sontag?” My friend Ron Rosenbaum

seemed incredulous. I told him, “No, it was actually two sentences.”

The sentences are from Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others,” her last published book.

Here are the two sentences:

Not surprisingly many of the canonical images of early war

photography turn out to have been staged, or to have had their subjects

tampered with. After reaching the much shelled valley approaching

Sebastopol in his horse-drawn darkroom, [Roger] Fenton made two

exposures from the same tripod position: in the first version of the

celebrated photo he was to call “The Valley of the Shadow of

Death”(despite the title, it was not across this landscape, that the

Light Brigade made its doomed charge), the 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.

There are no photographs – only references to photographs – in

Sontag’s book.[1] I will make this a little easier for the reader. Here

are the two Fenton photographs taken “from the same tripod position.” I

gave them the names – “OFF” and “ON” – the-photograph-with-cannonballs-off-the-road and the-photograph-with-cannonballs-on-the-road.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

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?”

Surely, any evidence of this would be independent of the

photographs. We don’t see Fenton (or anyone else for that matter) in

either of the photographs bending down as if to pick up or put down a

cannonball. How does Sontag know what Fenton was doing or why he was

doing it? (To up the ante, Sontag’s sentence also suggests a certain

laziness on Fenton’s part, as if he himself couldn’t be bothered with

picking up or putting down a cannonball himself, but instead supervised

or oversaw their placement. The imperious Fenton: Hey, you, over there. Pick up that cannonball and move it on to the road. No not there. A little more to the left. Or maybe it wasn’t laziness. Maybe he had a bad back. The incapacitated Fenton: Boy, my back is killing me. Would you mind picking up a few cannonballs and carrying them on to the road?)

While I was wrestling with these questions, it occurred to me that there was an even deeper question. How did Sontag know the sequence

of the photographs? How did she know which photograph came first, OFF

or ON? Presumably, there had to be some additional information that

allowed the photographs to be ordered: before and after. If this is the

basis for her claim that the second photograph was staged – that the

landscape was posed for the second photograph – shouldn’t she

offer some evidence? Fenton takes one photograph (OFF), oversees the

scattering of the cannonballs and then takes another photograph (ON).

There are no footnotes in Sontag’s book, but fortunately there is an acknowledgment section at the end:

I owe the information that there were two versions of Fenton’s “The

Valley of the Shadow of Death” to Mark Haworth-Booth of the Victoria

and Albert Museum; both are reproduced in “The Ultimate Spectacle: A

Visual History of the Crimean War,” by Ulrich Keller (Routledge, 2001).

I bought a copy of Ulrich Keller’s book

and turned immediately to the section on the two photographs. Chapter

Four: “The Valley of the Shadow of Death: The Triumph of Photography.”

And found the following passage where Keller lays claim to a number of

historical discoveries – namely that there are two photographs, that

the photographs are slightly different and that the cannonballs in the

second photograph were placed there either by Fenton or under Fenton’s

direction (ON).

Here is the text (the emphases in italics are mine):

A slight but significant difference between Fenton’s two pictures of

the site seems to have escaped the attention of photographic

historians. The first variant obviously represents the road

to the trenches in the state in which the photographer found it, with

the cannonballs lining the side of the road. In a second version we

discover a new feature. Some round-shot is now demonstratively

distributed all over the road surface – as if the balls had just been

hurled there, exposing the photographer to a hail of fire. Not content

with the peaceful state of things recorded in the first picture, Fenton

obviously rearranged the evidence in order to create a sense of drama and danger that had originally been absent from the scene.

In turn, this passage references a footnote where Keller further expands on his claims about Fenton’s personality:

“That Fenton tended to exaggerate the dangers of his photographic

campaign, too, can be gathered from ‘The Daily News’ of September 20,

1855, which lists a series of his close calls, such as his operating

van… being frequently an object of suspicion with the Russians; himself

being wounded by a shell; his assistant shot in the hand by a ball from

a Minié rifle.”

Sparling,

Fenton’s assistant, gets his picture taken before heading to the Valley

of the Shadow of Death. Fenton had written, “The picture was due to the

precaution of the driver on that day, who suggested as there were a

possibility of a stop being put in that valley to the further travels

of both vehicle and driver, it would be showing a proper consideration

for both to take a likeness of them before starting.” (Credit: Library

of Congress)

Keller says that the first photograph obviously “represents the road…in which the photographer found it” (OFF) and Fenton obviously “rearranged the evidence,” that is the cannonballs, in the second photograph (ON).

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.

I called Keller in Germany, where he is on leave from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

ERROL MORRIS: I became aware of your book on Fenton by reading Susan

Sontag. She refers to your book in her afterword, and talks about the

two photographs captioned: “The Valley of the Shadow of Death.” She

suggests that Fenton posed one of the photographs.

ULRICH KELLER: Yes.

ERROL MORRIS: She seems to have taken most of that material wholesale from you.

ULRICH KELLER: Yes, I guess one could say that. Yes.

ERROL MORRIS: What interests me is this idea that one of the photographs was posed. Of one of the photographs being a fake.

ULRICH KELLER: It has been sort of retouched or interfered with to

get some drama into it that wasn’t originally in it. I wouldn’t go so

far as to say it’s a fake, but it’s deceptive. Certainly.

ERROL MORRIS: Deceptive in what way?

ULRICH KELLER: Well, deceptive in that it creates the impression

that the picture was taken under great danger when that was not the

case.

ERROL MORRIS: Both pictures?

ULRICH KELLER: The second one. It’s clear that the one with cannonballs on the surface of the road must be later, obviously.

ERROL MORRIS: Why?

ULRICH KELLER: Well, because of two pictures, one has the

cannonballs resting in the ditch there to the side (OFF) and the other

one has them on the surface of the road (ON). It’s much, much more

likely to assume that Fenton would have taken these balls out of the

ditch and onto the road rather than the other way round. What

motivation would he have had to take cannonballs that were on the road

and remove them? Why would he do that? So I think it’s pretty obvious.

But you have doubts about that?

ERROL MORRIS: Yes. I have wondered how you came to the conclusion

that the one with the cannonballs on the road (ON) has to be the second

photograph. You suggest that Fenton was not in danger but wanted to

ratchet up the drama of the scene by making it look as though he were

under attack. That Fenton wanted to convey a false impression of

derring-do to the prospective viewer of the photograph. But why do you

believe that? I may not be phrasing this very well. If not, my apology.

ULRICH KELLER: Well, I can see a motivation for him to take the

balls out of the ditch and put them in the middle of the road. That

makes sense to me. It’s something that I think is plausible for someone

to do. The other way around, I don’t know why anyone would do that. I

don’t think it’s likely.

ERROL MORRIS: Is it the absence of a psychological explanation that makes “the other way around” unlikely or implausible?

ULRICH KELLER: Yes.

* * *

But is it so psychologically implausible for Fenton to have removed

the balls from the road? Ann Petrone, who works in my office, says, “Of

course he took the balls off the road. Don’t they need to use the

road?” She calls it the commonsense solution. But there could be

artistic reasons, as well. Fenton could have liked the aesthetic

quality that the barren road would have given him. He could have put

the balls on the road for the first picture (ON) and then taken them

off the road for the second (OFF), because he preferred the simplicity

of OFF. Maybe he saw the balls on the road and felt they looked fake,

and removed them in the interest of creating a more honest picture.

In Keller’s book, there is a letter from Fenton to his wife dated

April 24, 1855. Fenton’s entire correspondence from the Crimea, 25

letters, is available on line. This is an excerpt from letter No. 10:

…Yesterday after finishing the last picture of the Panorama I got

Sir John to lend me a couple of mules to take my caravan down to a

ravine known by the name of the valley of the shadow of Death from the

quantity of Russian balls which have fallen in it… We were detained in

setting off & so got down just about 3PM yesterday. I took the van

down nearly as far as I intended it to go & then went forward to

find out the chosen spot. I had scarcely started when a dash up of dust

behind the battery before us showed something was on the road to us, we

could not see it but another flirt of earth nearer showed that it was

coming straight & in a moment we saw it bounding up towards us. It

turned off when near & where it went I did not see as a shell came

over about the same spot, knocked it [sic] fuse out & joined the

mass of its brethren without bursting. It was plain that the line of

fire was upon the very spot I had chosen, so very reluctantly I put up

with another reach of the valley about 100 yds short of the best point.

I brought the van down & fixed the camera & while leveling it

another ball came in a more slanting direction touching the rear of the

battery as the others but instead of coming up the road bounded on to

the hill on our left about 50 yards from us & came down right to us

stopping at our feet. I picked it up put it into the van & hope to

make you a present of it. After this no more came near though plenty

passed up on each side. We were there an hour & a half an [sic] got

2 good pictures returning back in triumph with our trophies finishing

the days work but taking the van to the mortar battery on the top of

the hill in front of the light division…

Here are the facts as expressed in the letter:

1) The photographs were taken on April 23, 1855 — the day before the letter was written.

2) Fenton took the photographs in the Valley of the Shadow of Death,

so named because of “the quantity of Russian cannonballs that had

fallen there.”

3) The two photographs were taken between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.. They

arrived “about 3 p.m.” and stayed “about an hour & a half.”

4) Fenton and his assistant set up in a hazardous location and then

retreated 100 yards up the road. Even though the location was no longer

directly in the line of fire, they were still at considerable risk.

5) Fenton took one of the cannonballs as a trophy to present to his wife.

The letter is a godsend. It provides an extraordinary amount of

useful information. Without it, we would probably not be able to

determine when and where the photographs were taken. But the letter

makes no reference to the order of the photographs nor to whether the

cannonballs were put on or taken off the road. There is no mention made

of the two photographs save for the information that Fenton “got two

good pictures returning back in triumph with our trophies…”

I read further in Keller but found no reference to Fenton overseeing

the scattering of the cannonballs. It’s not in Fenton’s letters, so

where did this idea come from? I started to wonder. Which came first: a

conjecture about the order of the photographs based on Fenton’s (real

or imagined) intentions or a specific piece of historical information,

for example, something that Fenton had written that revealed the order

of he photographs? (If Fenton had written to his wife, for example,

that he had overseen the scattering of the balls, the question would be

laid to rest. At least we would know that Fenton had claimed to have done that. Regardless of whether he did do it.)

This led to me to a more general question: Would it be possible to

order these photographs not based on anything that Fenton said (which

might be unreliable) – but based on evidence in the photographs

themselves? This idea appealed to me because it did not require me to

imagine something about Fenton’s intentions, that is, about his

internal mental state. After all, how can I know what the guy sitting

next to me in Starbucks is thinking, let alone a man who lived 150

years ago?

My next interview was with Mark Haworth-Booth, the former curator of

photography at the Victoria & Albert in London. Haworth-Booth, of

course, was Sontag’s primary source. He was the one who referred her to

Ulrich Keller’s monograph on Fenton, and I was of course interested in

the details of how this all happened.

HAWORTH-BOOTH: Mark Holborn, Sontag’s editor in London called me and

told me that Sontag was looking for some material about Fenton, and I

sent him some photocopies of a thing I’d written a long time ago. He

passed them on to her, and she was very grateful. She didn’t really

quote them very accurately. She overstated what I said, which is very

characteristic of her writing. It became much more black-and-white and

strident than it was when I said it. I was raising doubts, but she

assumed that my doubts were a matter of fact rather than speculation.

Anyway, I was very grateful for the nice acknowledgment.

ERROL MORRIS: Can I see the article you sent her?

HAWORTH-BOOTH: Well, it doesn’t really amount to very much. It’s just a paragraph or so in a book I did called “Old and Modern Masters of Photography,”

and it has a short introduction in which this speculation about “Valley

of the Shadow of Death” appears. It came out about 1981.

ERROL MORRIS: And the nature of the speculation?

HAWORTH-BOOTH: Well, I noticed that there are two versions of the

“Valley of the Shadow of Death” about 25 years ago, and it made me

think: one of the pictures is clearly much more interesting and

expressive than the other. So I began to wonder if Fenton and his

assistant helped the composition by moving the cannonballs themselves.

That’s what I raised as a speculation.

ERROL MORRIS: Hold on just one second. My aging dog wants to get up

on a chair. Well, the issue of the two Fenton photographs, were you the

first to notice that?

HAWORTH-BOOTH: As far as I’m aware. Other people have claimed it,

but they claimed it many years after me. The main person I’m aware of

who thinks he was the first, the man who did the book on all the

different representations of the Crimean War. I think his name is

Ulrich Keller.

ERROL MORRIS: Yes. I’ve spoken to him. I’m familiar with the book.

HAWORTH-BOOTH: Good. His book is terrific. Anyway, he thought he had

invented the idea. But I had published it in 1981, so I’m kind of a

long way in the lead of him. I mean, it’s certainly pretty obvious, but

no one that I’m aware of had noticed it before. I just happened to have

two books open on my desk at the same time when I was having lunch, and

I noticed this difference.

* * *

Even though Haworth-Booth and Keller disagree about who first

discovered the twin photographs, they do agree that OFF was first and

ON second. They also agree that Fenton, in all likelihood, posed the

second photograph. However, as Haworth-Booth suggested in my interview

with him, this is not a view shared by all museum curators of

photography. Gordon Baldwin, recently retired as a curator at the Getty

in Los Angeles, has his own views of the order of the two photographs.

I called him.

ERROL MORRIS: I’m interested in two photographs – the two versions of Fenton’s “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”.

GORDON BALDWIN: O.K., excellent. As you perhaps have heard I have strong opinions on the subject.

ERROL MORRIS: Ah. I am more than interested.

GORDON BALDWIN: Well, I’ve written an essay – not a very long one –

the Folio Society is publishing a book in a few months called “The

Hundred Greatest Photographs.” I wrote three essays for the book and

that’s one of them. I think there’s a clear explanation for what

happened – why there are two photographs, and why they’re different.

And I think earlier readings in which people have thought that Fenton

was moving cannonballs around are erroneous. I don’t think he moved

cannonballs around. The cannonballs were harvested, so to

speak, by soldiers who were there. The place that Fenton went to make

the photograph – there are accounts in the London Illustrated News

about that place and in that account that appeared they talk about the

fact that the soldiers harvested the cannonballs in order to fire them

back.

ERROL MORRIS: Recycled them?

GORDON BALDWIN: Yeah, recycling. Heavy duty recycling. I think

that’s what happened. I don’t know, have you had a chance to look at

Fenton’s correspondence on the subject of “The Valley of the Shadow of

Death”? There are two different letters that he wrote which deal with

that place and what happened there. In the first one he talked about

going to reconnoiter the site – and this is without a camera – and

talks about cannonballs so thick on the ground it was difficult to walk

without treading on them. Which indicates to me a lot of cannonballs.

And then in the second letter where he describes making the

photographs, he talks about being under fire. At the time cannonballs

are bouncing around. I don’t think that someone who was under fire

would have had the time or inclination to be moving cannonballs around,

but soldiers might well have done so. There’s a correspondent for the

London Times who describes horses swaybacked from the weight of the

cannonballs that they were carrying. Russell, the Times correspondent

describes it, and this is part of that recycling process. I think

that’s what happened. So what people commonly have thought is the first photograph with few cannonballs (OFF) is the second photograph after some of them have been removed.

ERROL MORRIS: What attracted my attention to all of this is a couple of paragraphs in Susan Sontag’s last book.

GORDON BALDWIN: Oh, dear. Yes, O.K. I don’t think she’s very good on Fenton, frankly, but go ahead.

ERROL MORRIS: She mentions how one of the Fenton photographs was posed or staged. That we’re always disappointed

when we learn that a photograph has been posed. Then she goes on to

talk about the difference between fake paintings and fake photographs.

Namely, a fake painting is a painting with faulty provenance— say, a

painting that is purportedly by Vermeer, but turns out to be painted by

somebody else. But according to Sontag, a fake photograph is a

photograph that’s been posed. A perfect illustration of what she’s

talking about would be the purportedly posed photograph by Fenton, what

she takes to be the second photograph [ON] in the Valley of the Shadow

of Death.

GORDON BALDWIN: There are photographs of which this is quite true,

particularly photographs made by Alexander Gardiner during the American

Civil War, but I don’t think that is what Fenton did. It’s a somewhat

debunking way of looking at Fenton’s work. Vicki Goldberg would be

someone who would subscribe to this point of view, as well, but I don’t

think that’s what happened. Fenton’s own work tells us that that isn’t

what happened. I don’t think it was like him to have manipulated – to

have falsified an image in that way – and one reason I’d say so is: he

was simply photographing the place as he found it. I don’t think he had

an idea about the symbolic – what later people would say was the

symbolic value of the photograph. In other words, most of his

photographs from the Crimea are documentation of places where battles

have occurred. I don’t think he meant to make a highly charged

photograph. The place was quite well known. He didn’t name it “The

Valley of the Shadow of Death,” the soldiers had, and it was named that

simply because it was a dangerous place. The ravine was a place where

the Russians feared a surreptitious attack would be launched on a

position of theirs and to forestall that, they shelled it periodically

regardless of whether there were people there. And so it got this

nickname. When Fenton went there, he was going to a place he knew

about, but I don’t think he intended to so weight the image as

subsequent critics have. As a metaphor for devastation it’s a wonderful

photograph, but I’m not sure that was really his intention in making

it. That makes some sense I hope?

ERROL MORRIS: Yes, of course it does. But it is still unusual that

he took two photographs. I don’t know of any other example – correct me

if I’m wrong – where he took a pair of photographs from the same camera

position.

GORDON BALDWIN: No, I don’t think there is one. I think you’re quite

right. Certainly when he makes panoramas in the Crimea, the camera is

in one place and it’s rotated to a degree.

[Baldwin is referring to the overlapping photographs that Fenton

took from the British encampments. Just as Fenton had made an

experiment with time by taking two still pictures from the same camera

position, he experimented with space by creating some of the first

panoramas.]

ERROL MORRIS: Yeah, he’s panning.

GORDON BALDWIN: Yeah, although he’s not terribly skillful at it, to

tell the truth. The edges don’t quite line up the way they might. But

those are quite different from the photographs in the Valley of the

Shadow of Death. He’s there for an hour and a half and comes back with

two photographs. His van is drawn by army mules, not by horses in this

instant, and with the army mules came a soldier or two. Sparling, his

assistant was there. He was always there. I’ve pulled out the page from

the Folio Society book. What Fenton wrote to his wife in this first

one, this is a couple of weeks before he made the photographs. “Farther

on the balls lay thicker but in coming to a ravine called the valley of

death the site passed all imagination. Ground shot and shell lay like a

stream at the bottom of the hollow all the way down. You could not walk

without treading upon them…” That was written on the 4th of April. On

the 23rd of April, when he’s writing again, he writes saying – because

he’s been forced to retreat from the camera position he wanted to use,

because of being fired at. He writes, “very reluctantly I’ve put up

with another reach of the valley, a 100 yards short of the best point.

I brought the van down and fixed the camera… We were there an hour and

a half and got two good pictures, returning in triumph with our

trophy.” He doesn’t saying anything about moving cannonballs around. I

really don’t think he’s managing the image in that way, much as I find

Ms. Sontag interesting about photography, I don’t think she’s right

about Fenton.

ERROL MORRIS: In the book there’s a citation to a monogram by Ulrich Keller. Which I dutifully bought and read.

GORDON BALDWIN: I don’t think he likes Fenton very much. He

certainly thinks he’s a creature of the Establishment. But how could he

not be, in a sense?

ERROL MORRIS: Keller’s argument interested me, and it’s essentially

picked up by Sontag, that Fenton was a coward. Or if not a coward that

he was a person who was very, very reluctant to expose himself to any real

danger. That the cannonballs were rearranged by Fenton – this would be

Keller’s argument – to make it look as though he was in greater danger

than he was, that this place where he had taken the photograph was

something of a tourist attraction – the visitors or who you wanted to

show a piece of the Crimean War, and it would be the place to do it. I

hope I’m characterizing it correctly. I believe I am.

GORDON BALDWIN: It was a place that wasn’t very safe to be. It

wouldn’t have acquired that name had it not been. The fact that the

Times sketch artist – the Illustrated News sketch artist – made a

picture at exactly, or very close to, the same point that Fenton’s

photograph was made indicates it certainly had a certain renown, and I

don’t suppose every nook or fold of the landscape had a name given to

it by soldiers. But I wouldn’t have said that Fenton was at all

cowardly. I think he was quite an adventurous character. He simply

documented what was available to him during the time he was there. He

happened to be in the Crimea at a point when there wasn’t much fighting

going on. The great assault on Sebastopol occurs after he’s left. Have

you read the letters?

ERROL MORRIS: I’ve read some of them, yeah. Not all of them, but a good number of them.

GORDON BALDWIN: I don’t know whether you’ve read them in the Gernsheim version or in the online version.

ERROL MORRIS: I’ve read both.

GORDON BALDWIN: Because Gernsheim edited the letters in a way that I

think was unfortunate. He takes out the endearments, which is too bad

because they give a flavor to his writings. Would you apply the same

argument to the sketch artist? That he went there to prove that he was

exposing himself to danger?

ERROL MORRIS: Presumably you have to take into account the conventions of the time.

GORDON BALDWIN: Victorian sensibilities. British sensibilities would

not have shown dead or dying people. The photographs of the dead don’t

occur until a little later, and it’s always of the enemy. At least

initially it’s of the enemy – the photographs that are made a couple of

years later of the revolt in India – of dead, enemy. Similarly, when

Alexander Gardiner is photographing corpses on the field at Gettysburg,

they’re the enemy. One doesn’t photograph one’s own dead. Because there

was so little fighting where Fenton was, there were no Russian corpses

he could photograph. He wasn’t close enough to fighting to be able to

photograph Russian corpses if there had been some. His van was an easy

target; it was big, but he needed it there because of the photographic

processes he employed. It would have been a violation of Victorian

sensibilities to have photographed the dead.

It’s Gardiner later who does photograph corpses. It’s Gardiner

photographing Confederate dead. Fenton certainly sees wounded British

coming back to camp and things like that – and sees British corpses

being carried away, but I don’t think one photographs that. It would

have been alien to his own sensibilities, and his own sensibilities

were not so very different from general sensibilities at that point.

The Crimean War was extremely unpopular, and it was very badly run, not

so badly run by generals, but the supply corps was hopelessly

antiquated. The soldiers, in that first winter, before Fenton arrived,

had inadequate food, inadequate shelter, inadequate clothing. The

images that are propagandistic are the ones that show that the soldiers

are adequately housed, adequately clothed. To that extent Fenton is a

propagandist, but I don’t think it goes much farther than that, and

indeed by the time he’d gotten to the Crimea, things had considerably

improved.

ERROL MORRIS: I read that the photograph of Sparling and the van was

taken the same day Fenton took the “Valley of the Shadow of Death”

picture and that Fenton had taken Sparling’s photograph at Sparling’s

request because Sparling thought that this would be his last day on

earth.

GORDON BALDWIN: Yes, I think that’s how the story runs, but I’m not

sure where it comes from. I don’t have any reason to think that it may

not be true, but Sparling is a fairly funny character. He isn’t simply

Fenton’s assistant although he functions that way for a long time and

advertised himself as being assistant to Mr. Fenton. He was a very

smart guy. He wrote a manual on photography that is extraordinarily

clear and beautifully phrased, but he didn’t have Fenton’s class

advantages. Sparling asked that that photograph be made because he knew

they were going back to this place which was dangerous, which Fenton

had been to before – although it doesn’t say that Sparling was with him

the first time and since he didn’t have a camera with him when he went

out to reconnoiter three weeks before, it’s possible Sparling wasn’t

there. If Sparling thought it was that dangerous, isn’t that testimony

to the contrary of Keller’s contention that Fenton was cowardly?

ERROL MORRIS: Yes, it is. Although it could just be that Sparling was also cowardly.

GORDON BALDWIN: Perhaps [laughter]. How far can one extrapolate

that? Who else was cowardly? My general view is that Fenton is a more

admirable kind of character than Keller thinks. He and I have had some

conversation – quite a number of years ago – about Fenton. I simply

disagree with everything he had to say of the subject. I just didn’t

think the way he was analyzing his character was useful and I thought

that the evidence we have runs to the contrary. The letters of course –

Fenton could not have foreseen that they would be published. And they

were published way after his death. The family realized that they were

important enough to copy them. The letters that have been published are

the result of somebody in the family copying the letters into a book.

The letters themselves don’t exist. There were two books which

descended in

different parts of the family. One of them is at Austin and the other

one’s at Bradford. They vary slightly. They’re not exactly the same

content, but they preserved the letters and clearly the family felt

they were important enough to want to preserve them. He is not writing

for the public, and of course he doesn’t want to make himself seem

unattractive or cowardly to his family or his publisher, since the

letters are variously written to his wife, to his brother and to his

publisher. He’s just trying to tell about what happened. It’s too bad

there aren’t letters from other periods of his life, but there aren’t

except for his official correspondence for the Photographic Society.

Clearly, the letters give a picture of a different kind of man than

Keller thinks.

* * *

This view contra Keller and Sontag – namely that the order is ON

then OFF – is also held by Malcolm Daniel, the curator of photography

of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the author of an article in the

recent exhibition catalog, “All the Mighty World: The Photographs of

Roger Fenton.” Daniel told me that he, too, believes in the recycling

theory.

MALCOLM DANIEL: The long and short of it — or the short of it — is:

we don’t know which of the two pictures came first. For a long time it

was thought that the first one would be without as many cannonballs on

the road (OFF) and that Fenton pulled them out of the ditches and

littered the road with them (ON) to make the picture more dramatic. We

now think that the opposite is true. There are references in Fenton’s

own letters – a reference to British soldiers collecting the

cannonballs to fire them back in the other direction. We just can’t

know. People have sort of assumed that he put more there (ON) to make

the photograph more dramatic, but it’s just speculation. The danger was

real, also – as you can tell from the fact that there are cannonballs

there at all. It is an area that was certainly within range, and he had

this big van that he was carrying along with him, and you remember that

Marcus Sparling, his assistant, made him take the picture of Sparling

sitting on the photographic van before they went into the Valley of the

Shadow of Death because he was worried that they might not come out.

So, I don’t know. There’s no inscription, no documentation to say which

one is first, and so we can speculate that he’s making a more dramatic

picture or one can say: well, we have this reference to soldiers

collecting the cannonballs to fire back in the opposite direction, and

so it’s probably more likely they were removed than that he went out

there and lugged them around. I mean those things are heavy. It’s just

highly unlikely that he would go traipse around and scatter them over

the road.

* * *

Two sets of esteemed curators. Two sets of diametrically opposite

conclusions. There is the expectation if you have an odd number of

voters that there is little chance for a tie. So I looked for a

tiebreaker – a fifth arbiter, Richard Pare. Pare, the author of a

monograph on Fenton, has written eloquently on why these photographs

are important:

One of the undisputed masterpieces of photography is the Valley of

the Shadow of Death, so potent was it already as a symbol of the war

that the location is indicated on the printed key. Here he increases

still further the divorcement of the subject from any specific

identification with place. He had wanted to make an altogether

different picture facing towards Sebastopol and full of specific and

identifiable markers. Instead he was compelled by immediate danger to

retreat a little way back up the track and in so doing was presented

with the picture that he chose to record. It is devoid of any

topographical detail that defines a particular place; it becomes

instead an image about the horror of all war and the mundane business

of destruction. It suggests only the potential for sudden and

indiscriminate death. Fenton made two versions of the image and by

imposing the one on the other it is possible to see that the second and

published version is in all likelihood an arranged image. It makes the

message of the image more emphatic and is a photographic solution that

was unique. It has no precedent and no successors; it is a stark

description of a dreadful subject. The first iconic photograph of war.

From the above text it would seem clear that Pare believes that OFF

comes before he ON. Yet he describes himself as a flip-flopper on this

very question. Some days he looks at the photographs and thinks it’s

OFF followed by ON, on others, ON followed by OFF. Far from breaking

the tie between the OFF’s-then-ON’s (Keller and Haworth-Booth) and the

ON’s-then-OFFS’s (Daniel and Baldwin), he further underlines the

problem of using “logic” or “psychology” to adjudicate the issue.

RICHARD PARE: I go back and forth. Probably Fenton went out there or

Sparling, his assistant, went out there and arranged the cannonballs,

but then I look at it again and there just doesn’t seem to be a logic

for that conclusion. If you compare by flipping back and forth between

the two frames on the computer, you can see where the cannonballs go

missing from, and it doesn’t necessarily seem to follow what you would

do if you were going to embark upon an enterprise of that kind. So

there’s another possibility. There was a salvaging party, down there at

the same time, gathering them up, but he doesn’t say in the letters

that he wrote to his wife that there was anything like that going on.

In other accounts of the war there are the most explicit descriptions

of the ground being literally littered with cannonballs to the point

where the horses had trouble picking their way between them. So it’s

not in any way an extreme situation that he’s laying out, even if he is

arranging them. The question is whether you think that that’s like the

Arthur Rothstein thing of moving a cow skull in the desert and courting

abuse during the WPA. [2] I tend to think that just as an image, it’s

so powerful and such an extraordinary expression of that silent horror

of the war – whatever he does to it. Both versions are powerful. With

the additional cannonballs scattered about on the ground, it becomes a

little more compelling. Does that make any sense?

ERROL MORRIS: Absolutely. The oddity, of course, is that there’re two photographs.

RICHARD PARE: Right. You know, of course, that they are not the

pictures he was intending to make, right? Can you hang on just a

second? I’ve got the guy who’s been in trying to fix my printer. It’s

just about ready to go. I’ll be right back.

ERROL MORRIS: Okay. Absolutely.

RICHARD PARE: Right. Where was I?

ERROL MORRIS: We were talking about the pair of photographs.

RICHARD PARE: Yeah. It’s not even the picture that he intended to

make originally. He’d been out scouting, some days before, and had

intended to make a picture further down the valley or the gully – it’s

not so much a valley – towards Sebastopol and was driven back because

there was too much fire coming in. Probably the pictures he was

intending to make would have been far more site-specific. There would

have been identifiable topographical features that people would

recognize.

* * *

As Gordon Baldwin points out, Fenton had gone to the Valley of the

Shadow of Death at least once before. Fenton mentions this in a letter

dated April 4-5, 1855:

…we walked along a kind of common for half a mile coming towards the

end upon Russian cannon balls scattered about. Further on the balls lay

thicker, but in coming to a ravine called the valley of death the sight

passed all imagination [ — ] round shot & shell lay in a stream at

the bottom of the hollow all the way down you could not walk without

treading upon them [ — ] following the curve of the ravine towards the

town we came to a cavern in which some soldiers were stationed as a

picket. They had made a garden in front forming the borders of the beds

with cannon balls. We had gone a little further down & were

admiring the rugged outline of the rock & pondering out where the

face had been smashed by the Russians fire when we were startled by a

great crack in the rock in front of us & a cloud of dust followed

by a second knock upon the opposite face of the ravine as the ball

bounded across it & then a heap of stones & the ball rolled

away together down the ravine…

But what does this tell us?

“…[T]he sight passed all imagination…you could not walk without

treading on them.” There were cannonballs everywhere. Could it be –

having seen the road on April 4 when the Russian cannonballs were

“scattered about” – that Fenton sought to recreate on April

23 what he had seen earlier? Is ON merely a re-enactment of a

previously seen event? Did he arrive at the Valley of the Shadow of

Death on April 23 only to be disappointed to see fewer cannonballs on

the road than he had seen earlier, then scatter the balls to evoke what

he seen earlier?

Again, these questions are not answered by Fenton’s letters.

The recycling issue is also of interest, but it cannot resolve the

question of which came first – ON or OFF. British soldiers could have

collected the balls on the hillsides and left them to be picked up on

the road. Fenton takes the first picture (OFF) before the British

soldiers pick up the balls, and then takes the second picture after the

balls have been piled on the road (ON). In this scenario, OFF comes

first, then ON. Or Fenton could have come on the balls collected on the

road, taken the first picture (ON), watched as British soldiers piled

them on horse-drawn carts, waited for the carts to leave, and then

taken the second picture (OFF). In this scenario, ON comes first, then

OFF. Note: in both scenarios Fenton has not intervened nor posed

anything. The British army could have put the balls on the road and

then taken them off to secure passage through the Valley of the Shadow

of Death. In this instance, by Sontag’s criteria, neither image would be posed.

The possibility of recycling does not help. It can support either

conclusion – ON before OFF or OFF before ON. To make matters worse,

recycling doesn’t have to be involved in any way – just because

cannonballs were often recycled doesn’t mean that they were recycled between

the taking of the two photographs. There could have been no recycling

on April 23, the day Fenton took the pictures. Recycling may be a good

thing – even when it involves cannonballs – but it can’t help us

determine the order of the photographs.

So why are these respected curators proposing such a theory? Here is

a simple reason. They are defending Fenton’s character from the

depredations of his antagonists. Is Fenton a coward? Did Fenton fake

his iconic photograph of the Crimean War? Did Fenton oversee the

scattering of the cannonballs? I imagine their defense of Fenton in

front of some imaginary jury. No. It’s not in accord with Fenton’s

character. It was done by others, by the British Army. Fenton is not a coward. He was in the line of fire. Here they are offering a new psychological theory to counter the psychological theory advanced by Keller. [3] But what does Fenton’s character – or his “psychology” – have to do with it?

Much of the problem comes from our collective need to endow

photographs with intentions – even though there are no people in the

frame, including Fenton himself, who is conspicuously absent. The

minute we start to conjecture about Fenton’s reasons, his intent – his

psychological state – we are walking on unhallowed ground. Can we read

Fenton’s intentions off of a photographic plate? Is there anything in

the letters that tells us what he was really thinking and what really

happened?

This is when I decided to try to determine the order of the pictures

completely independent of suppositions about Fenton or his

psychological state – his intentions, his beliefs. I wanted to leave

Fenton out of it. Was there a way to order the photographs based on

what we see in the photographs – nothing more?

The first question was which direction was Fenton facing — north,

south, east or west? Was he looking in the direction from where the

cannonballs were coming or in the opposite direction? The photograph

looks as though the camera is pointed up into the hills rather than

down into the valley. South rather than north.

Keller makes this point in “The Ultimate Spectacle”:

Fenton made two decisions reflecting his reluctance to expose

himself to risks. First of all, of the two similarly shaped valleys, he

chose the less dangerous one in the back of Chapman’s Batteries.

Secondly, he stopped in the upper, shallow part of the ravine, not in

the deeper, more advanced part shown in the “best general views.” Here,

he decided to turn the camera back up towards the camps, rather than

downward in the direction of Sebastopol, as Simpson and Robertson had

done.

Fenton “decided to turn the camera back up towards the camps,” that

is, the pictures were take looking south. Pare came to the same

conclusion. He is also convinced that Fenton “turned around and,

literally facing in the opposite direction, looking uphill back towards

the Allies encampment…was confronted by the picture…” But where is the

evidence?

Keller has never gone to the Crimea. Pare has gone but was unable to

find the Valley of the Shadow of Death. To be sure, there are problems

finding it.

Both Keller and Pare believe that Fenton was facing south – back

toward the British encampments. Could they be mistaken? How did they

determine this? Neither of them had stood where Fenton stood, looked

through a camera lens and tried to match the contemporary landscape

with the images that Fenton had taken 150 years before.

It was at this point that I resolved to go to the Crimea and to find the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

I would like to propose a contest to the Times’ readership — an

invitation to order the photographs and to propose reasons why they must be

in that order. Anything is fair game. Any kind of evidence may be

considered, and I will discuss the solutions in a followup article.

Good luck.

Footnotes

[1] Sontag’s unwillingness to include photographs in her book

becomes a troublesome conceit. The presence of photographs in her

manuscript would force us to ask questions about the photographs

themselves. Without photographs Sontag’s theoretical concerns

predominate, and we end up thinking about her remarks in a photographic

vacuum.

[2] Arthur Rothstein was accused of fakery for moving a cow skull

ten feet. I plan to discuss this controversy – and the issue of posing

in general – in a subsequent essay.

[3] I might add that my interpretation of Baldwin’s and Daniel’s motivations is also a psychological theory.