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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

Guests:

Errol Morris

Comments [9]

tony from sf ca

Maybe I'm missing something here, I was driving when I listened to this story. Is the question more, what picture came first, or is it that one is staged?

I would assume that the one with the cannon balls in the road is staged because I don't think a round ball would land in the road and stick as if hit by a pitching wedge, it will travel untill it hit something or runs out of energy like being hit by a three wood. There doesn't seem to be a divit by the balls and they are not countersunk into the road. I don't think the cannons had enough energy at the time to fire at an angle to bring a ball down at an angle to have it stick, also what would the point of that be when they were designed to bounce through enemy lines tearing people up?

I would guess the cannons would shoot 10 or 15 degrees above level so as to bowl it's way through the troop tearing off limbs and whatnot as they were designed, with the weight of the ball and the energy it gets from being fired it's not going to roll to a stop on a somewhat flat road very often.

What came first without knowledge of the rocks mentioned in the show? I would guess that the "off" picture came first, then after the "on" picture the photographer rolled them back off the road.

Jul. 12 2015 04:45 PM
tony from sf ca

Maybe I'm missing something here, I was driving when I listened to this story. Is the question more, what picture came first, or is it that one is staged?

I would assume that the one with the cannon balls in the road is staged because I don't think a round ball would land in the road and stick as if hit by a pitching wedge, it will travel untill it hit something or runs out of energy like being hit by a three wood. There doesn't seem to be a divit by the balls and they are not countersunk into the road. I don't think the cannons had enough energy at the time to fire at an angle to bring a ball down at an angle to have it stick, also what would the point of that be when they were designed to bounce through enemy lines tearing people up?

I would guess the cannons would shoot 10 or 15 degrees above level so as to bowl it's way through the troop tearing off limbs and whatnot as they were designed, with the weight of the ball and the energy it gets from being fired it's not going to roll to a stop on a somewhat flat road very often.

What came first without knowledge of the rocks mentioned in the show? I would guess that the "off" picture came first, then after the "on" picture the photographer rolled them back off the road.

Jul. 12 2015 04:44 PM
Cliff Bieberly from Honolulu, HI from Honolulu, Hawaii

I think both photographs are organic, i.e., real and not faked to make a better picture. It would take several people many hours to wander the field, find, dig up and carry those heavy cannonballs to the road. They would do this NOT to make a better photo, but to recycle the cannonballs. The cannonballs are on the road where they can be retrieved later and hauled away in mass by a horse and wagon. I believe Roger Fenton caught a before-and-after shot that demonstrated a significant amount of labor. No staging, just waiting.

Jul. 11 2015 05:55 PM
Leslie from San Francisco Bay Area

When I download and edit videos I shoot (shorebirds at dawn and dusk) I end up stepping through eye catching "changes," frame by frame. The cameras I use record at 12, 24, 30, 60 and 120 frames per second. Imagine 120 pictures of the "same thing, in the same moment of time," milliseconds apart.

Two frames, side-by-side can show profound changes in the subject, or the background, or the foreground, or all three. Imagine. And I do. Photographic recording is always science and art, comes close to, but never arrives at truth.

Jul. 11 2015 04:33 PM
Donnalyn from California, U.S.A.

I think the change may have been for purposes of making a better "composition." Notice how in the second (cannonballs on the road) photo, one cannonball has been placed at the bottom of the image about 1/3 of the way from the left edge. I can totally imagine the photographer doing this to create an interesting focal point.

Jul. 11 2015 04:18 PM
bella

A few years ago I took a history of photography class and this photo being one of our slides. I clearly remember learning that other famous early war photographs were "staged", and that it was a common occurrence.

Jul. 08 2015 01:31 PM
Jon

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/15/science/no-evidence-of-coffee-break-on-mars.html?hpw&rref=science

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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