Does it matter if Roger Fenton staged a Crimean War photograph?

From daguerreotypes to digital.
Nov. 1 2007 5:23 PM

Who's Zooming Who?

Errol Morris' obsessive investigation of a Roger Fenton photograph.

(Continued from Page 1)

Still, I couldn't help wondering what the point was, or if there was a point at all. For one thing, I can't imagine why Sontag or Morris or anyone else thinks it matters whether Fenton staged the shot or not. It didn't violate any stricture on photography that Fenton himself would have recognized. No one in 1855 believed that photography was a guarantor of truth—an imitation of nature, yes, but a means to objective photojournalism? Not quite. For one thing, to take a picture in those days, you had to leave the lens open for quite a while; how long, exactly, is a matter of some debate, but it was long enough that any photo with people in it was necessarily staged, if only because the subjects had to stay still for an unnaturally protracted period of time. Fenton also did a number of still lifes, which were of course carefully arranged: Why wouldn't he have arranged an empty battlefield? The idea of "candid photography" simply didn't exist, and it stands to reason that what he was doing was closer, at least in his mind, to, say, Gericault's Raft of the Medusa than it was to Robert Capa.

Moreover, it's worth pointing out (though Morris never does) that Fenton was sent to the Crimea with a letter of support from Britain's Prince Albert. Hardly the sort of assignment that would encourage him to be more objective, even if such a thought had occurred to him. In her book on war photography, Sontag condemns Fenton for a form of imposture, while praising Jeff Wall, who, more recently, made an obviously staged photograph called Dead Troops Talk. The difference seems to be that Fenton disguised his fakery, while Wall makes his very clear (indeed it's much of the point of his work). But this is wildly anachronistic: Fenton's mild rearranging of some cannonballs presumably went unremarked because no one at the time would have thought it worth remarking on. To subject him to the standards of our own time is otiose; it's like complaining that Wagner's Ring cycle is missing a backbeat.

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There's another point that Morris never mentions, though I couldn't help but think of it. When his documentary The Thin Blue Line came out in 1988, he was criticized, here and there, for including re-enactments of a few scenes surrounding the murder that the film addressed. Might he, then, be treating Fenton as surrogate for himself—much as Janet Malcolm seems to treat Joe McGinnis?

Well, I don't know. Maybe he just liked the picture. According to the JM Effect, there's no way of knowing: Morris himself may not know; indeed, not knowing, and all the many ways there are of not knowing, is the theme of his Fenton meditations. They are as monomaniacal as anything I've ever seen in a daily newspaper—at one point he admits, "I know. It is insane …'—and while they end on a note of certainty, they leave a lingering aftertaste of doubt. But I'd rather read Morris' insane and skeptical marathon than wade through other critics' sober judgments, and I don't really care about the rest. I don't care if Fenton moved some cannonballs around: It's a great picture either way (though I'd care if someone tried to do the same thing today: Standards, as I say, have changed). I don't care if Morris re-enacted some scenes in The Thin Blue Line: He never hid it, and the result was a great documentary. And I don't care why he chose to pursue this particular topic at such fantastic and disorderly length. It's a great thing to find in a newspaper.

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