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Truth and Cannonballs

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Restoration of an 1855 photo by Roger Fenton at the 'Valley of the Shadow of Death,' cannonballs on the road (Dennis Purcell)

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 (the photo above), while the other shows the same road with no cannonballs (they're off to the side in ditches):


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

Which one came first? And why would the cannonballs have been moved? 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


Errol Morris

Comments [3]


I can't help but chuckle about this rock falling down the hill on Mars!

Feb. 15 2014 11:10 PM
Robert Messick from Illinois

Truth and Cannonballs.

A) Photographer Roger Fenton comes upon a road loaded with cannonballs in the middle of the road.

B) Photographer Roger Fenton comes upon a road with cannonballs laying on the side of the road.

After great expense and investigative analysis B was determined to have been taken first.

If the photography came upon a road as depicted in A, why then would a photographer/artist/reporter opt to
clear the road to show B which all would agree would be a less dramatic scene?

By the logic of photography as Art/Truthful reportage, B would then be the logical choice as being the scene
which comes first.

Aug. 03 2013 04:52 PM
steve giovinco from New York

Fascinating. I loved listening to how to look at a photograph. Looking at this image years ago--as it does now, even after the "mystery" was solved--is intriguing and is filled with abject emptiness incarnate. Thanks for the great piece.

Aug. 03 2013 01:42 PM

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