Cannon Balls to Fenton

I have to admit that when I first read Errol Morris‘s lengthy blog post on which of two Roger Fenton images of the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death‘ where the Light Brigade charged to its death in 1855, my first thought was “who cares?” Or, as Simon Grant put it last year in his piece for the Tate, “Does it matter?”

In fact I still somewhat feel that way, but there is no doubt that the controversy that his article and the follow-ups to it have aroused are of interest. You can read part 2 and part 3 here – the link on his blog is now incorrect. (though perhaps he will put it right if he reads this.)

Fenton made two pictures of the valley. One with no cannon balls on the road, but plenty on the rougher and apparently lower ground at its edge and the second with quite a few on the smoother road.

Library of Congress:

Ask yourself as a photographer, going to photograph this scene, whether it is likely that you would decide to clear off the road to make another photograph? Can you imagine Fenton saying, “Marcus my man, just tidy up that roadway there’s a good chap, those cannon balls just look too untidy.” and Sparling saying “Yes Sir, right away” getting down to it? (You might also ask why so many balls should have stopped rolling on the smoother road rather than going down into the gully by its side, especially if you’ve ever played bagatelle.)

Then read many thousands of words and consultations with experts of all kinds by which Morris finally proves (in part 3) – at least to his satisfaction – what I think any successful working photographer would have known all the time.

But I’m being unfair, because a) other people have suggested the opposite, and b) much of the discussion the issue invoked is fascinating. Point a) perhaps just goes to show that many people – even people with big reputations – who write about photography are basically word guys who’ve never really worked with the medium. But read it – along with Morris’s earlier pieces, Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire and Will the Real Hooded Man Please Stand Up for some fascinating argument that often relates to the peculiarly American obsession about not posing or in any way interfering with news photographs. (His latest piece,
Primae Objectiones Et Responsio Auctoris Ad Primas Objectiones (Part One),
is a reply to some of the over a thousand comments made about his previous Fenton pieces, and is also worth reading, although I feel at times far too long-winded and suggesting he has run out of anything fresh to say. Given the number of words he has now expended on the issue, I’m only surprised he hasn’t yet found the 7th Lord Lucan, descendent of the unfortunate 3rd who got Raglan’s order to charge in 1854, carrying it out to the letter despite knowing it was mad. Almost as mysterious is the change of the Lucan Arms, down the road from me towards Laleham, once a decent local, now morphed into the abysmal and anonymous Anglers Retreat.)

I’m a photographer who doesn’t like to pose things, and have spent an awful lot of time cursing (if usually only inwardly) the guys from the big print (what we once called ‘Fleet Street’ – about all that’s left is the Cheshire Cheese) as they get in and interfere with the people I’m photographing. But even though I don’t like to pose people, I’m very aware that I can’t photograph without a point of view.

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