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In the Valley of the Shadow of Doubt

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Errol Morris is a legendary fact-hunting documentary sleuth. His film The Thin Blue Line has been credited with overturning a murder conviction, and freeing an accused man from a death sentence. For him, the search for truth shouldn't stop short of insanity. He tells Jad and Robert a story about his obsession with one particular photograph. Taken in 1855 during the Crimean War, the photo -- titled "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" by its photographer, Roger Fenton -- is one of the first photos ever taken of war. And it may also hold the title of First Faked Shot.

As Errol explains, it turns out there were actually two photos -- both taken from the same spot over 150 years ago. One image famously shows a road littered with cannonballs, while the other shows the same road with no cannonballs (they're off to the side in ditches). Which one came first? And why would the cannonballs have been moved?

On the road:

(Photo restoration by Dennis Purcell. Click to zoom.)

And off the road:

(Photo restoration by Dennis Purcell. Click to zoom.)

After attacking the question every way he could, including traveling to the Crimea, Errol turns to his friend Dennis Purcell, an optical engineer, for help. After hours and hours of scrutinizing, Dennis solves the puzzle. But what Errol ends up finding isn't a straightforward correction to the historic record... but a surprisingly personal connection to one lost moment of reality.

Also check out:

Errol Morris's new book, A Wilderness of Error

Guests:

Errol Morris

Comments [48]

Hellebore

My explanation :
Roger Fenton took the fisrt shot, the road was empty of cannonballs.
When he saw the result, cannonballs were not enough distinguishable from the rocks. So he moved some cannonballs on the flat road and just in front of the camera. You can even see some little rocks displaced when he walked from the hill to the road with the cannonballs.
If the cannonballs were fisrt on the road then removed, the cannonballs would have been pushed into the ditch, not carried on the hill. (sorry for my poor english).

Jan. 27 2014 03:08 AM
deborah from Pittsburgh, PA

Wouldn't the canon balls leave an impression upon impact? Some dents in the dirt road? They would be lying in their self made craters if the photo was real. right?

Sep. 19 2013 04:41 PM
Cringe from Texas

can't people just notice that there are less cannon balls in the ditch and on the hill in the picture with cannon balls on the road. also how does it show he is a coward? both pictures are of cannon balls sitting on the ground after a battle what logic goes from that to he being a coward?

Aug. 04 2013 01:17 PM
Nikki

I wouldn't perceive that Fenton was afraid to get too close to the action, but that, considering the technology of 19th Century photography, making an exposure would have been too slow a process to catch any action. From what I understand, it was quite normal practice to photograph the aftermath, rather than the action for this reason, i.e. O'Sullivan's "Gettysburg, 1863." The aftermath was the closest one could get from experiencing the war.

Of course, that whole trend wouldn't have mattered anyway, since Fenton was really directing the first staged photograph.

Jun. 11 2013 10:23 AM
Kayt from Tennessee

It would seem like the original scene may have had cannon balls on the road, and then she soldiers moved them to clear it for traffic.
Fascinating process to determine whether the photo was doctored. The photoshop pro's method was effective, but I'm sure traveling to Crimea was way more fun.

May. 24 2013 10:19 AM
Jordan from Seattle

Thank you for the Piano music ID Keivn!

Dustin O'Halloran - Opus 23

May. 17 2013 06:09 PM
B from Champaign

I wonder if Mr.Morris does more investigations like this? With this much passion and determination for the search of truth, I believe he can cast some light on to the controversial Armenian genocide.

May. 09 2013 05:23 PM
Ryan O'Neil

This story (and the comments on this page) combined with Gene Weingarten's recent story in the Washington Post about Errol Morris's book, Wilderness of Error, lead me to a very dim view of Mr. Morris and his work.

Feb. 20 2013 05:10 PM
David Michaels

Wow, it's lucky that someone pays such close attention to detail, so we can get an accurate account of what really happened during the Crimean War.

-David M.
<a href="http://www.trailways.com/travel/tour-sightseeing">bus tours</a>

Jan. 21 2013 04:41 PM
Alexander Thompson from Gloucester, MA, USA

I am impressed, mainly, with Fenton's precision in the superimposition of these images. He really wanted this view to be exactly the same. The tripod and apparatus he was using were prone to shifting all the time, especially when the dark-slide was being manhandled in and out.
I appreciate this essay very much as the legions of fakers that plague the internet recoil at the notion that there is "truth", and this puts it right in their faces.

Jan. 16 2013 09:59 AM
Julia Scalzo from Toronto

I haven't read Sontag's essay, but I have a very good idea -- it seems obvious to me -- why she would have assumed that the cannon balls on the road were staged. 1855 Is still during the period of Romanticism. Fenton would have been aware of Goya's, Gericualt's, Delacroix's painted depictions of violent events, complete with expressive figures and accommodating dramatic lighting effects. Since these are all paintings, no one would have assumed that the paintings were exactly, exactly, exactly what happened (to modern eyes they look ridiculously staged), but they were meant to express something of the meaning and the sense of what happened. Fenton could not compete with these types of images at all: no color, and very, very long exposure times that made it all but impossible to photograph gesturing human beings. With no real expectation to do truth the way we expect it do be done, he did it they way painters have always done it and jazzed it up. Sontag would have known that.

Nov. 26 2012 03:11 PM
Kay from Washington, DC

I will buy the experts' opinion on the order of the photos. I can't buy the conclusion that Fenton staged the one with the cannonballs. How would he have done that? Any evidence that he traveled with a group he could order to move stuff around? Far more logical that one of the armies did it. If you were ordered to have your men gather the cannonballs to be reused, wouldn't it be self evident to tell them to chuck the balls down the hill for a cart to pick up later. No flash of creative genius needed. Although registering the event does call up emotions, and Fenton was clever to understand and record that. I just think the natural course of events is a much better likelihood. But then, I've never been comfortable on the grassy knoll.

Nov. 03 2012 01:52 PM
Sam B. from Peoria, IL

Does anyone know who performed the guitar music at between 17:38-17:52 and again at 18:23-18:38? I emailed Radiolab but never got a reply back.

Oct. 23 2012 11:23 AM
Nathan Noonan from MA,USA

In regards to the question of what came first, not only did I noticed the rocks, but I first noticed the hill in the background had that "morning haze" while in the second picture with the cannon balls no longer had the "morning haze".

Oct. 23 2012 10:37 AM
dr_murkes

Thanks to Brian for pointing out what photographic process Fenton would have used and the comparatively long exposure and developing times required in the 19th century. My alarm went off when I Jad said that one would literally be holding a piece of the film from that moment in history. The photographic print one would be looking at is several steps removed from the actual *glass plate negative* produced by Fenton (several more steps if one is looking at a digital reproduction of a reproduction of a reprod...). As other commenters have pointed out Errol Morris' conclusion is not entirely convincing either. His claims to have discovered irrefutable evidence seem specious, if the photographic technology of that era isn't even considered.

Oct. 17 2012 08:32 PM
Adam Prometheus

if the soldiers came and took the cannonballs off the road to reuse them, why didn't they take the ones out of the ditch?

Oct. 12 2012 02:52 PM

PRAISE BE TO KEVIN FOR ID'ING THE PIANO MUSIC.

Oct. 12 2012 12:03 PM
JW Dewdney from Los Angeles

The narrator's conclusion is RIDICULOUS. It is an ad hominem argument. BECAUSE five rocks were moved does NOT mean the cannonballs were moved. This is just bad bad science. It may WELL be that the cannonballs WERE moved... but the moving of a group of rocks does not have anything to do with it. The truth is we simply DO NOT KNOW - and there is really no way to find out without some sort of testimony or notes from Fenton himself.

Oct. 10 2012 06:07 PM
Kevin

That song is Dustin O'Halloran - Opus 23

Oct. 08 2012 07:23 AM
Kevin

Pleas: Can anyone I.D. that aforementioned piano music?

Oct. 08 2012 07:13 AM
Chamblee54 from http://chamblee54.wordpress.com

I edit historic pictures from the Library of Congress. I am familiar with the Fenton Crimean War collection. I found the "famous" picture quickly. I looked through all 263 pictures in the collection, and could not find the picture without the cannonballs in the road. I find this rather peculiar. I suspect the other picture is a phony.
http://chamblee54.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/the-pursuit-of-truth/

Oct. 04 2012 04:26 PM
3G from Carrbor, NC

What is the piano piece from 14:38-16:30 ish? It's beautiful.!

Oct. 04 2012 01:40 PM
Chad from Windsor Ontario

What is the music playing from 14.38-16.45? Thanks! Please somebody read this and provide the info!

Oct. 04 2012 10:15 AM
Jeff S from My Studio in Kansas City, MO

If I had stumbled upon this scene I think I would have been in awe of the number of canon balls lying in the gutter where they came to rest. I would then have coated my wet plate "film", made my long exposure and within fifteen minutes I would be looking at a very disappointing image - that did not "tell the story" I visualized. I would have then had my assistants move some of the heavy canon balls to the road so that they could be seen "read" as a complete spheres, coated another plate exposed, developed and moved on... I would never have thought that I was creating a controversy. Just practicing my craft doing the best I could.

Oct. 03 2012 06:32 PM
Brian from Richmond

I believe Errol Morris has constructed a completely specious straw man argument for a question that cannot be answered with any historical certainty. Many of the comments here respond to the points Morris makes without simply looking at the photographs from a fresh perspective of plausibility. Hard shot cannon shell were harvested to be reused. It is just as logical, therefore, that the photo with the cannon balls on the road was taken first. To the point raised that that pattern of balls on the road is too random, or not random enough, there is no way of telling how many cannon balls may have already been removed. As for rocks having moved, there is no way to tell how many soldiers were walking over the ground, disturbing the ground with what tools or implements. The flat rock placed or removed from lower left? Used to chock the wheel of a wagon being loaded with cannonballs which is just out of camera frame to the right. Of course, all this is speculative as is everything Morris argues. There is no way of knowing. The key element in this analysis is that of time. Roger Fenton was using a wet plate camera that required a darkroom - his wagon - immediately at hand. The plate needed to be prepared with a chemical solution, exposed in the camera, then immediately processed before another plate could be prepared for the second shot. The exposure in the camera would have been several minutes long. There was ample time, therefore, between the two photographs for soldiers to have cleared the road, as was there ample time for an assistant to have scattered cannon balls. There is simply no way of knowing, regardless of the argument Morris makes about rocks having moved. Roger Fenton went to the Crimea to photograph war in whatever manner manageable with the primitive, difficult photographic technology of his day. Errol Morris insults his own intelligence by his gratuitous claim that Roger Fenton was a coward. Roger Fenton was a very brave man.

Oct. 02 2012 06:53 PM
C from NYC

What is the music playing from 14.38-16.45? Thanks!

Oct. 02 2012 08:38 AM
Kate from Chicago

I don't care which came first - to be honest. It's fun to think about it and find where the thinking about it leads you, but I don't mind much which is the truth. It was the part in the segment where they talk about *feeling* the moment by imagining the foot knocking the rocks down the hill that really spoke to me. It is a concept I always think of when looking at pictures, or artifacts/objects from a long time ago. Some scuff on a old shoe or tear in a piece of paper and I immediately feel the moment that some one kicked their foot out haphazardly or shoved the paper in their pocket. Love it!

Oct. 01 2012 02:20 PM
Christopher Boas from Philadelphia

It is very disappointing to me that Mr. Morris calls Roger Fenton a "coward" for apparently no reason. Someone who bases his credibility and reputation on "truth seeking" diminishes both by resorting to such childish and unprofessional name calling. For an englishman in 1855 to travel to the Crimea to work as a journalist and document war in my opinion is an amazing act of heroism. I have been familiar with Roger Fenton's work for thirty years and this image in particular. I find it to be a very successful image in it's stark representation of not only what you see but in allowing the viewer to imagine what is not there and project into the image what must have been a horrific scene. It seems to me the height of academic smugness and a waist of time and resources to even pose the silly question of which came first the chicken or the egg. Neither photo is "faked" in any way. They are both an artists statement on the harsh and brutal realities of war.

Sep. 30 2012 09:49 PM
The Thinkinator from Queensland, Australia

Hi thinking people,

Would a huge artillery barrage leave cannonballs all over the hills and in the ditches, and nothing at all on the road?

Assuming this is the result of combat and not an overturned supply wagon or the like, you might think there would have to be some cannonballs on the road also. This would make placing some back on the road after they had been cleared "reconstructing" the scene rather than "staging" it. Perhaps this is what Mr. Fenton thought. I particularly like the one the put in the foreground next to the side track, i think its a nice touch.

However I would guess that this sort of cannon would be aimed like a gun not a mortar so you would expect any of the the spherical ammunition that hit the road at high speed and a low angle to continue on into the side of the hill and possibly roll back down into the ditch....

....unless they hit something. This is what is missing from the photos. Where are the corpses? the wrecked wagons? The horse corpses? Assuming this is the result of a battle, then all the other remains of the battle have already been moved. It seems highly unlikely that the road itself could be used to remove the rest of the debris whilst leaving the balls in place. It would therefore follow that the cannonballs must have been place there after the debris had been cleared away. IF indeed there was any debris.

This appears to be quite a well used road, with room for two wagons to pass each other plus extra trails on both sides of it. There also seems to be far too many cannonballs on the road for the number in the ditch. The chance of a ball ending up on the relatively flat road versus in the ditch would seem fairly slim at best.

And I still can help but wonder what the situation was.. whose cannons were they? where were they? how many were there? who were they shooting at? how many shots could they fire per hour? To have that many cannonballs in such a small location as the foreground of this photograph, I can only imagine would have taken some considerable time, and it would have been reasonably large target. Perhaps the mother of all ambushes? If you were planning this ambush wouldn't you choose somewhere with more cover than these gently sloping hills?

Its just conjecture, but I suspect the place where that much spent ammunition is found in such a confined space was then as it remains today; a firing range. A good access road with gently sloping hills, no vegetation and nice gutters would make it easy and locate and recover your cannonballs and keep practicing. And if the enemy came up the road you could always fire at them also.

Sep. 30 2012 07:08 AM
Kevin White from Grand Rapids, MI

One approach to quickly noting which areas between the two photos are different is to apply a simple layering effect within Photoshop.
Step: 1. Open the image WITHOUT the cannonballs and allow that to act as the first layer (e.g. "Background").
Step: 2. Open the image WITH the cannonballs and place that image on top of the layer WITHOUT the cannonballs.
Step 3: Select the layer WITH the cannonballs and change the mode from "Normal" to "Difference."

The image will switch from a positive to a negative. -Only areas which appear white are actually areas highlighting the differences between the photos. Obviously, all the cannonballs appear white. However, more than just a few rocks have shifted. Try it. You'll see. Also, it's clear that minimal human contact was made on the surrounding hills. Most notable, the right half of the image shows the greatest difference. My guess is the photographer was right-handed and his camera's film slot loaded/unloaded on the right. Reason being is the camera positioning was disrupted on that side thereby producing that effect. Regardless, such subtly suggests he was careful in his craft -or owned an awesome tripod!

In summation, the level of activity at the ground level says it all. There was no notable exchange of force or extensive labor detail between the time these images were captured...IMO.

Sep. 29 2012 02:24 PM
smwilliams from Montana

Couldn't he have moved the cannon balls off the road and disturbed the rocks on the hill in moving them?

Sep. 28 2012 03:26 PM
Ted from Petaluma, CA

I can't say what happened surrounding these two photos but I believe the photo with the cannonballs in the road was shot second. The other photo was shot first. I think at least one of the four balls that moved from the left hillside were rolled down hill and disturbed the rocks mentioned. I think that some of the cannonballs in the ditch were relocated to the road and that some cannonballs were taken from behind the photographer and added to the road. Also I noticed one of the cannonballs in the ditch - just right of center and about 1/5 up from bottom - moves slightly. It appears to me that this ball was rolled over and has fresh dirt on top whereas the other photo, taken before, has clean cannonballs. Other balls added to the ditch also appear to have dirt on top.
What I can say is the two photos were taken within the time span that the tripod rested at that spot. The photographer certainly did not come back to that location with his gear the following day for example.

Sep. 27 2012 11:52 PM

I had a completely different take on the cannonballs. Perhaps the soldiers put them on the road so they would be easier to pick up and reuse. Not a staging, just another step in the process.....

Sep. 27 2012 10:56 PM
TennkMow

Looks like a pretty good shoop to me dude.

www.AnonCrew.tk

Sep. 27 2012 09:16 PM
Nate

Great Episode! I wish someone would tell me the name of the piano piece plays at around 14:38 to 16:34. Why don't you have the music in the credits?

Sep. 27 2012 05:44 PM
caleb p from joplin mo

FANTASTIC EPISODE....the kind of radio that leaves us all enriched and agitated. :) but.... can we PLEASE get some credits for crying out loud. I would love to support the artists whose music you guys use but they are not listed or credited anywhere. There's a guitar piece at around 17:40 that made me stop in my tracks but who could it be?

Sep. 27 2012 03:18 PM
Jasonpagemusic from Houston Tx

This is a beautiful story! I love it!

But what if he took the "not on the road pic" right before the road took incoming rounds? He sees the road a few hours before the battle, then he sees it after in a different way. I mean, a cannon ball that size hitting the ground would be enough to shake rocks on the hill from their place, no?

Just a theory...

Love you guys! Keep up the good work!

Sep. 27 2012 12:14 PM
Grace from minneapolis,mn

Hi to all,

another superb segment- i am infatuated with the piano music in the background when Errol describes his unknown father. can anyone help identify?

thanks

Sep. 27 2012 11:51 AM
Chad from windsor ontario

I loved this segment so much. Especially the piano music in the background as Errol explains his own life mystery. Is there any one who knows where I can buy that piece?
Thanks so much!

Sep. 26 2012 10:33 PM
Jack Treml from Paola, ks

Judging from the comments, I think the point of the story- that truth is slippery- is supported.

Sep. 26 2012 09:05 PM
tjggriffin

In the image with no cannonballs in the road, fact-errol_01.jpg, I count 11 cannonballs also missing from the ditch. In image fact_errol_02.jpg with cannonballs on the road, there are about 6 missing from the hill. So with 26 balls in the road, there are about 31 more balls in fact_errol_02.jpeg.

I don't think any conclusions can be made one way or the other. They may have been removed, perhaps scavanged. In the process they may also have tossed rocks and unusable cannonballs further up the hill. Or maybe the balls were placed in the road, but Fenton had collected more that he needed and tossed them in the ditch.

Sep. 26 2012 04:41 PM
Dan Chase from Muncie, IN

Could the rocks not just as easily be moved by the cannon balls knocking them after striking and running down the hill?

Sep. 26 2012 03:39 PM
Daniel Ezell from San Anselmo, CA

Edit: Three of the balls on the East side of the road in the on-the-sides image are missing in the "on the road" image. That brings the numbers to 25 and 25 (give or take).

I'm now convinced they were moved for the road shot.

Sep. 26 2012 02:44 PM
Daniel Ezell from San Anselmo, CA

A interesting way to observe differences between the two photos is to put each in a tab in your browser (and only those two tabs in your browser window) and hold down ctrl+tab. The result is a two-frame movie in which the things that flicker are the things that moved.

You will see that in the ditch and on the left hill 22 or 23 cannonballs flicker while around 28 flicker on the road.

A slower transition reveals that one of the cannonballs in the ditch moves slightly nearer and farther from the camera, but the others simply disappear.

Cannonballs being cumbersome to carry, nobody is going to bother to move many of them from farther than they have to. The number is close enough, some of the near field balls could have come from underneath or behind the camera, that I see Mr. Morris' conclusion as the most likely.

Do you think that the cannonballs were fired from the east since none of them seem to be resting on that side of the photo?

Thanks for sharing the investigation with us!

Sep. 26 2012 02:38 PM
Ben Link

@ Henry Frummer: I noticed the moved canon ball at the left, as well. The largish, flatish rock to the left, next to the canon ball that appears to move from the crater to the foreground in the image, also does not look like a rock that would easily be kicked down a hill from someone walking by.

Sep. 26 2012 12:02 PM
marlo123 from Oklahoma City 73134 OK UNITED STATES


I agree with your conclusions and looking forward to your coming updates. Thanks for sharing

<a href="http://www.cabinetcuresofoklahoma.com">Marlo</a>

Sep. 25 2012 06:18 PM
Henry Frummer from Novato, CA

Spending a couple minutes flipping between the images reveals something that was not brought up in the piece. The cannonballs themselves move and appear in different places in the pictures. I agree with the conclusions about the rocks and there is also one cannonball is sitting in a crater in one photo is gone in next but the crater is there. There is also a distinctly non-random pattern of cannon balls on the road. Randomness leads not to an even distribution but in clumping. This is generally not understood and so people who try to create random distributions get it wrong.

This all does not prove anything. The alternative explanation which is possible is that troops marching along that road later would have moved the balls out of the way giving the exact picture that we see. (The recycling argument does not work as the balls along the ditch are still there.) Being a tiresome truth fascist myself, I have to say that the most unlikely things happen in both history and nature.

There is in fact a problem with all of the explanations. There seems to be more cannonballs in the picture picture number two (the one with the balls on the road.) If Fenton moved the balls onto the road, then you would expect there to be less balls in the surrounding ditches rather than more. So where did Fenton get them? I have not counted the cannonballs in each photo but that seems like a thing to do. I find it odd that the rock positions jumped out to the investigators eyes but not the cannonball positions.

So another explanation that includes all of the facts. Bombardment one happened and troops moved the balls off the road into the ditches out of the way. Then bombardment two happened (dislodging the rocks) and leaving the balls on the road and then Fenton took the picture. The cannonball in the crater did not create it but rolled into it.

None of this proves that Fenton did not stage the photo. One piece of evidence that he actually did was the fact that despite the fact that there are more cannonballs in the second picture, there are at least two balls that are actually missing from the ditch that were there in the first photo but are no longer there in the second. I can see no way of explaining this fact.

Really fascinating problem. But I think a mapping of all of the cannonballs in each photo is the way to go on this one.

Sep. 25 2012 04:13 PM
Colin Cannell

One piece of circumstantial evidence that supports (but could not prove) the idea that the balls on the road were placed there intentionally is the fact that they appear to be somewhat evenly spaced. Cannonballs that had come to a stop more or less randomly would tend to cluster more, especially where the ground dips, as seen in the ditch to the left of the road.

Sep. 24 2012 11:27 PM

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