Errol Morris on Robert Fenton’s war photos

Just in case you haven’t seen them yet, Errol Morris — one of my favorite filmmakers — has posted some fascinating items at his New York Times blog regarding a couple of photos that were taken by Robert Fenton during the Crimean War, back in 1855. Both of these photographs depict the exact same landscape from the exact same position, but in one photo, there are cannonballs ON the road, whereas in the other photo, they are OFF the road.

Morris examines the many competing claims as to which photo was taken first, and as to whether Fenton staged one of them, and along the way he makes some very interesting points about history, methodology, and so on. He also talks about the trip he made to the place where the photos were taken — a place known, at least during the war, as the Valley of the Shadow of Death — to see if that might help him figure out which photo came first.

Morris is especially curious to know if the order of the photos can be figured out by examining the photos themselves, without any reference to other people’s claims about them (and if you open the OFF and ON photos in separate browser tabs, and then flip back and forth between them, you can try to figure it out too!).

So far, Morris has posted part one and part two of his musings, along with links to some additional resources. There will be a part three and, possibly, a part four later on. Stay tuned!

The OFF photo:

The ON photo:

The OFF photo against the landscape 150 years later:

The landscape itself:

OCT 24 UPDATE: Morris has now posted part three of his series.

DEC 18 UPDATE: Morris has now posted an analysis of the various interpretations of the photos made by his readers.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).