The Pursuit Of Truth
There is a podcast called The Fact of the Matter. It is about a man who likes to separate fact from fiction. “The pursuit of truth properly considered shouldn’t stop short of insanity.” After an hour or so plumbing the digital depths, PG began to appreciate the truth of that comment. Does anyone have a recipe that uses a can of worms?
The show is about a photograph from the Crimean War, The valley of the shadow of death. It was taken by Roger Fenton April 23, 1855, near a place called Balaclava. Today, this is in Ukraine. Balaclava was the site of a nasty battle, in a bloody, pointless war. Today, a Balaclava is a colorful ski mask. It is the fashion statement of Pussy Riot.
PG cannot understand why this picture is a big deal. The Library of Congress has a collection of the Fenton Crimean War Photographs. This Fenton pictures were one of the first collections in the LOC that PG worked with. The picture of a road, with cannonballs, did not catch his eye.
The more historic pictures PG edits, the better he gets. One thing he learned was to download the high resolution .tif pictures. When he did the Fenton pictures before, he used the lower quality .jpg images. When he paused the podcast, and went to the LOC to see “Shadow of Death”, he decided to download a few old favorites. These are the pictures that go with this post.
The podcast is a detective story. It seems that there are two versions of the photograph. One has the cannonballs in the road, the other doesn’t. Were the cannonballs tossed on the road to make the picture more dramatic, or were they removed? They could have been removed to clear the road for wagon traffic, or to recylcle the balls. In those days, people picked up used cannonballs and fired them again.
A very good question is why anyone should care? A man named Errol Morris cares. The link is to a very long article at the New York Times about the picture. Mr. Morris went to Ukraine to investigate the pictures. It is possible that his pursuit of truth did not stop at the boundary of insanity.
So the podcast mentions this famous picture, with a second shot that casts doubts. PG went to the LOC, and found the famous picture right away. The second shot proved elusive. PG viewed all 263 pictures in the Fenton collection in a slide show, and could not find the second picture. PG began to think that maybe the second picture was the fake. The New York Times article by Errol Morris has a copy of the second picture. The possibility remains that the second picture is a fabrication.
The podcast says that the location of some rocks changes in the two pictures. In the picture without the cannonballs on the road, the rocks are higher up on a hill, than they are in the famous picture. To Mr. Morris, this is evidence that the famous picture is a fake. PG has examined the two images, and includes them here. Perhaps this search for truth will be called off before the onset of dementia.
Controversies about famous images is not new. The shot of the flag going up over Iwo Jima has long been suspected of being posed. Just today on facebook, there was a link to a feature, The Kissing Sailor, or “The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture”. The idea is that the nurse did not want the sailor to kiss her on VJ day.