Seeing is believing

Not exactly the most original title, but remarkably apropos to what I’ve been reading.

Images are powerful mediums. As the tired axiom goes, they are worth a thousand words. This maybe be an overused sentiment, but it is quite true.  Images define events. They shape our thinking about the past by controlling what we see- and what we don’t.

Take Victorian England (or American, or Canada, etc, etc). In every one of those old family photographs, we see grim, stiff men and prim, proper ladies imprisoned in corsetry  and impractical hats. We certainly get the impression that this was an unhappy time, bounded by complex and overbearing rules of etiquette, controlled by a Dowager Empress with absolutely no sense of humour.

Like most things we believe, of course, it just isn’t that simple. Queen Victoria was not a staid sepia-toned  old toad, and people were, in fact, quite capable of enjoying themselves. Maybe not the aristocracy, but somewhere, someone was having fun.

The reason that we don’t see photographs of these folks is the same reason that we don’t see a lot of action scenes from that period.  Exposure times. Glass plate cameras, like those that portrait artists would have been using, relied on chemicals whose sensitivity to light was not as strong as modern film. The result is that a single photograph required an exposure could take several minutes, or even longer. You ever try to hold a smile for that long?

The end result is a mistaken impression of the era, or at least a superficial and shallow one. The Victorian were excessively prone to stiff suits and heavy moralizing, but that isn’t all that they were. Indeed, most folks were nothing like that.

In a Series of articles for the New York Times  Errol Morris discusses the possibility that Roger Fenton, photographer of the Crimean War, falsified some of his images (the lower one) by adding cannonballs to the road, in an attempt to make things appear more dangerous, some claim, to himself and his crew.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.


Mr. Morris writes much better than I can, so I will not rehash his article. However, I will ask this question:  Is an image supposed to be a recording, totally and completely identical to the moment during which it was taken, or is it meant to be a recording of the feel of the moment?

In the above image, Fenton had not touched any of the cannonballs, which had rolled into the ditch on either side of the track. Certainly it does give us some indication of what was happening here. The valley of the shadow of the death represented a weak point in the Russian defences, especially since it was a blind spot for them. As a result, the Russian artillery regularly shelled the valley in order to keep any force sneaking up it from feeling too safe.

The photograph does not really illustrate that point. The cannonballs have had time to bounce and roll off the road, suggesting that there’s been a bit of lull. It could be ten minutes, ten days, ten weeks, ten years since that last bombardment, and given the quality of 1850s photography, how would we know?

The lower photograph, not matter how “doctored’, is still more alive. Fenton did not bring these Cannonballs from elsewhere. They are actual Russian munitions, aimed and fired at the location he captured. Fenton was simply attempting to make the location evocative of what war looked like. Given the limitations of his equipment, he could not capture an image of an active artillery battery. He could, however, give us some idea of what the valley would look like half way through a bombardment.

The Crimean War is best remembered for the heroic bungling that was the charge of the Light Brigade, wherein a squad of cavalry faced down the Russian artillery. They lost. Badly.

We can better image those British horsemen charging into certain death when we can understand the sheer power those Russian cannons possessed. A power Fenton captures better in his second photograph.

Fenton, Roger. Valley of The Shadow of Death. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

As a side note, one does not need Photoshop to fake a photograph. Perhaps one of the greatest fakes of all time was the Cottingley Fairies, a famous hoax perpetrated by two British girls who managed to, among other things, fool Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes himself.

How did they manage this great feat? With Cardboard and Pins.

Elementary, my Dear Watson?


Scott W. E. Dickinson

The truth is out there, but the lies are in your head


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