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.

Roger Fenton, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855. Click image to expand.
Roger Fenton, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855

There is a phenomenon often at play in the worlds of art, literature, criticism, and journalism, which I have come to think of as the JM Effect, in honor of its most striking manifestation, a series of moves by New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm. Malcolm, you may recall, was sued for libel by a man named Jeffrey Masson and then went on to write a book called The Journalist and the Murderer, which attacked a writer named Joe McGinniss for betraying his subject, a convict named Jeffrey MacDonald. Quite a few people believed that Malcolm was trying to expiate her own sins, or perhaps to exonerate herself by comparison. Me, I always figured she was just obsessed with the initials.

The JM Effect, then, prevents anyone from knowing why any artist or writer does anything, and I had cause to consider it again just recently, as I was reading Errol Morris' very long, sometimes brilliant, and overall very strange series of essays in a blog on the New York Times Web site. Morris begins, and ends, by considering a picture by Roger Fenton called "In the Valley of the Shadow of Death," a famous photograph from the Crimean War that, according to Susan Sontag, was at least partially staged.

When I wrote about Fenton myself, here on Slate, I repeated Sontag's claim, somewhat unthinkingly, I have to admit, at least in light of Morris' vetting. He was more skeptical, and in fact he writes about 25,000 words, over three posts, about his efforts to determine the truth of the accusation. That is about three times the length of a very long magazine article, and Morris digresses a lot; he pulls in maps and charts, he delves into Ruskin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, some notes on the history of fashion; he notes the difference between the Valley of Death and the Valley of the Shadow of Death (they were apparently two distinct places); he travels to the Crimea to see the scene for himself; and he quotes, at considerable length, a series of interviews he conducted with various photography experts, curators, computer scientists, and historians. At one point he reproduces a picture of his Crimean tour guide's shoes, and I would tell you why, but I'm not quite sure myself.

Morris posted two pictures by Fenton, taken on the same day and from the same position, one showing cannonballs on a road, and the other showing them only on the side of it; he invited readers to weigh in on the evidence for one or the other being staged, and hundreds took him up on it. He seems to have struck a nerve, or perhaps forensics is a more popular pastime than I would have guessed. The whole affair snowballed to browser-crashing size: If you add the readers' comments to Morris' own writing, you get a word count of about 223,000, which—just to put it in perspective—is slightly longer than Moby-Dick. Not since the Zapruder film has so much been said about a few frames of photography, and it ends with Morris siding with Sontag, after all (though her evidence was scanty and her motivations suspect). It seems very likely, if not absolutely certain, that Fenton threw a few cannonballs onto the road in order to make a better picture. In other words, we finish, after a very long journey, pretty much right where we started.

But it's a very charming and enjoyable journey, with all sorts of hypotheses entertained, and computer analyses, and a great deal of slightly neurotic second-guessing and self-doubt. It's a shaggy-dog story, a monumental procedural in which it's revealed, at the very end, that the butler did it after all.

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.

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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