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Observations on Mysteries

By Daniel Hubbard | October 21, 2012

The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855. Which photograph came first? Was one of these staged? Those are the questions.

The title for this post is stolen with pride. I’ve been reading Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography), by the director Errol Morris. I knew I had to read the book after hearing several interviews with him that touched on his almost maniacal pursuit of the correct order of a pair of photographs.

These aren’t just any photographs. They are of a place that had been named “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” during the Crimean War. Taken in 1855, they are among the first photographs of a war zone. The small valley between siege lines is a wasteland. The landscape is simply strewn with Russian cannonballs. About 250 are visible in each picture. A road that runs down the valley is littered with them. That is, in one of the pictures the road is littered with cannonballs but not in the other.

What set the author off on his quest were two sentences written by Susan Sontag. Those sentences claimed that the photographer, Roger Fenton, had tampered with his subject matter. He had taken the first photograph (without any cannonballs on the road) and then he “oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs on the road itself” before taking the second picture. Two questions came to Morris’s mind, and if we think analytically, should come to our minds as well.

  1. How did she know that Fenton oversaw any scattering? There is no one in the pictures at all, let alone someone doing any scattering.
  2. How did she know which photograph came first? It was 1855, the film was not on a roll. There is no strip of negatives to make the order clear.

What became clear was that there was no evidence at all concerning which photograph was first. Fenton wrote about taking them in a letter but said nothing about moving cannonballs. There have been many opinions. Some claim one came first, others claim the opposite. Everyone’s opinion boiled down to estimates of  Fenton’s character and hypotheses about his motivations with some added uncertainty because in those days, cannonballs were collected by armies for reuse. Fenton might not have done anything but wait while soldiers moved them.

Thinking about the Practical

The details of the investigation give one a lot to think about. First come some practical considerations. When presented with a mysterious item, is there external evidence? In this case a letter allowed timing the photographs to between 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm on April 23, 1855 but it says nothing of their order or why the obvious difference between them. It doesn’t even clear up a difference of opinion about which direction the camera was facing, toward Russian lines or British.

Another consideration with a historical mystery involves a place, does the place still exist in a meaningful way and if so, can it tell us anything? In this case, no one knew, but eventually the spot was located because, except for vegetation returning, it is unchanged. Fenton was facing the Russian lines. With time and direction known, it was thought that shadows might allow the photographs to be ordered. They didn’t, though something else in the photographs did.

Meditating on Mysteries

It isn’t just an interesting investigation into a small mystery that is going on here. There is quite a bit about what evidence actually means and how we try to understand it. Without documentation that states the order, that is, without external evidence, could internal evidence, evidence within the photographs themselves, be used to solve the mystery?

For that matter, when a photograph or, more often in genealogy, a document presents a mystery, how do we balance evidence internal to the artifact and external evidence that might be brought to bear? I’m reminded of a cartoon from years ago in which a set of supposed Hitler diaries were discovered. Effort was lavished on them to place them in historical context using other documentary evidence until it was noticed that they were written on official Dukes of Hazzard stationary. Internal evidence often proves very useful.

How do we use possible motivations? Estimates of motivations may allow us to form hypotheses but without actual evidence, they are no more than possibilities. In the case of these two photographs, it seemed to me that small changes to estimates of motives resulted in totally different conclusions—not what one wants when trying to solve a mystery. Mathematicians have a term for situations in which small changes produce radically different results and that term says it all. They call such situations chaos.

How does a photograph’s or document’s very clear, if restricted, glimpse of history become integrated into a more complete story? Morris mused on the view given by a single historical photograph and wrote, “It is as if we have reached into the past and created a little peephole.” What we see may not be all that extensive, but what is there is vivid. How do we fill in the gaps between those few vivid glimpses?

One of the main themes of the discussion of the Fenton photographs is that a documentary photograph should not be posed or staged. It should be a record of what was before the camera without interference. Yet the second part of this theme is that it isn’t so simple. The photographer still chooses where to aim the camera, when to open the shutter and what is framed within the picture and what is excluded. Historical documents are not so different. Someone decided what to record, what to exclude and when to record the information. I love old land records, the kind where the clerk recorded little facts about the people involved, often how they were related. Later ones, after a change that excluded such information, can seem sterile in comparison. Everyone mentioned in the record can have the same surname but they were recorded as if they were total strangers. I want to go back in time and shake the clerk until he tells me not just the names but who the people actually were—not just information but knowledge.

No one can argue that these photographs do not contain a great deal of information. Yet, it took a long investigation to turn that information into knowledge. Actually, isn’t that what is is all about—gathering information and gradually converting it to knowledge?



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