World's Fair

Preface | Pt. 1 | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3 | (Sidebar 1) | Pt. 4 | Pt. 5 | Pt. 6

Pt. 7 | (Sidebar 2a) | (Sidebar 2b) | Pt. 8 | Pt. 9 | Conclusion

“Pictures are supposed to be worth a thousand words. But a picture unaccompanied by words may not mean anything at all. Do pictures provide evidence? And if so, evidence of what? And, of course, the underlying question: do they tell the truth?”E. Morris

There are numerous ways a picture can manipulate its viewers, but most break down into two: a modification of an image after it’s taken or staging an image before it’s taken. The documentary maker Errol Morris (that’s his quote above), in a remarkable series of essays over at his blog at the New York Times, follows a string of prior theorists and thinkers on the matter of truth, objectivity, and proof to consider what is true about a picture. (See his Preface, then I, II, III.) His statement, at the end of a preface to the three-part series, is that “Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but there are two words that you can never apply to them: ‘true’ and ‘false’.”

It’s the kind of statement a reader (i.e., me) of Daston and Galison’s new book, Objectivity, might take particular interest in (as from here, here, or here).

Morris begins his journey when the closing lines of Susan Sontag’s last book, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” instigate it:

“Not surprisingly many of the canonical images of early war photography turn out to have been staged, or to have had their subjects tampered with. After reaching the much shelled valley approaching Sebastopol in his horse-drawn darkroom, [Roger] Fenton made two exposures from the same tripod position: in the first version of the celebrated photo he was to call “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”(despite the title, it was not across this landscape, that the Light Brigade made its doomed charge), the cannonballs are thick on the ground to the left of the road, but before taking the second picture – the one that is always reproduced – he oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs on the road itself.”

How did Sontag know the cannonballs were put *onto* the road for the second picture? And not removed from the road to make the other one? It turns out she relies upon a source that Morris tracks down, a source which also doesn’t clearly explain its assumption of which came first.

From that prompt, unconvinced that the answer is so obvious (it is not, it turns out), he ventures out to a several-month odyssey from New York to Sebastopol and back. He posts his thoughts and receives over a 1400 comments. And he dips his toes into almost every area of interest–whether obliquely, explicitly, or by allowing the chance for pondering–The World’s Fair feigns to have. (Consider, as just one example, that World’s Fair Advisory Board Nominee Richard Powers‘s first novel, Three Farmer’s on Their Way to a Dance, was about the exact same subject as Morris’s essays, and Sontag’s too.)

This is about far more than photojournalism and more than artistic contrivance, because the questions Morris asks and seeks to answer hit at the basics of ‘ways of seeing’ the world. True, the examples here are not as complex as those Daston and Galison address in their history of science, but they speak to the same themes and concepts. In fact, the straightforwardness of the pictures Morris contemplates make the themes all the more compelling. Ways of seeing are ways of knowing.

I grew up near Antietam and Gettysburg and learned early on about the famous Civil War photographers Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner. Specifically, I learned how the war photographers had staged dead bodies, and how the famous scenes along Bloody Lane at Antietam and with propped up Confederate rifles in other scenes became the kind of things Sontag refers to with “canonical images of early war photography.” (Here is one by Gardner; here is one by Brady).

That was the early 1860s. Fenton is working in the prior decade, in the Crimean War, a war I didn’t know too much about until encouraged by Morris to read up a little on it (and learning about it just from his posts).

The two images under his consideration are here. The first one he calls “OFF,” because the cannonballs are off the road.


This second one he calls “ON,” because the cannonballs are on the road.


Again, the question that launched a thousand+ replies: Which one was staged and which was not, as the photographer Roger Fenton came upon it in 1855?

The intrigue of Morris’s essays is that he works through a series of investigations (is this a detective’s project? an experimentalist’s? a philosopher’s?) to figure out how one could figure out which came first.

More to come here, but in the meantime, by discussing representations of the world — and representations of facts and evidence about the world, of what is true and what we know — the very premise of Morris’s essays and these World’s Fair posts is surely related to one of the dominant threads at Scienceblogs, politics. That thread is part of the next step, about what the images are for, and, in that vein and because the political sphere is usually the sphere of public action, about the relationships of science and public politics. In this sense, Morris’s pursuit is about far more than photojournalism, lilting into the field of image making writ large and the presentation and representation of evidence. Let’s take one prominent example: If global warming evidence, for one, is to be persuasive (as this post assumes), do we say so because the pictures, the graphs of data, are so obvious? Can there be an obvious, unnarrated image?


  1. #1 wjg
    January 10, 2008

    Two things strike me from the use Ben is making here with this collection of essays (which I finally made my way through in their entirety). One is the unabashed hope projected onto photographs in their infancy. As Rebecca Solnit relates, in River of Shadows, photography was called variously the “pencil of nature” or “sun-pictures” (originating with W.H.F. Talbot). Unmediated capturing of the real. An attitude largely displaced by more nuanced understandings of mediation – which I presume is the connection Ben is making here with science (insert quote here about the purity of scientific vision). Which is not to say that photography (or science) doesn’t offer truth, just that it’s a complex truth inexplicably linked to context of creation and interpretation. Or to let Morris tell it, “It is also interesting how a photograph quickly changes when we learn more about what it depicts, when we provide a context, when we become familiar with an underlying story. And when we make claims about the photograph using language. For truth, properly considered, is about the relationship between language and the world, not about photographs and the world.”

    Which brings me to my second thought, which Ben might also be able to anticipate – this involves Theodor Adorno’s conception of the relationship between words and the world, and in particular the link between philosophy and art. Philosophy’s job (and in this case, we can extend the rubric of philosophy to include manners of natural philosophy more traditionally conceived) is to make sense of the world offered to us, especially what is excluded in the common conception. But, as all linguistic appropriations of things are tyrannical (all words by their nature exclude aspects of the thing not captured in the system of meaning in which those words gain their traction), art has the job of calling attention through non-linguistic means to what is excluded. Which, in turn, must be “made sense of”, which in turn must have its exclusions “called attention to”, and on and on and on.

    Keep going, Ben.

  2. #2 Bing McGhandi
    January 11, 2008

    If a picture is worth a thousand words, why do we need the saying?

    Funk dat.


  3. #3 allison
    March 14, 2008

    The answer to the question “which photograph was taken first?” is quite clear to anyone with a knowledge of astronomy.

    The cannonballs are backlit and not casting long shadows, which means that both photographs had to be taken approximately mid-day (say, 10am – 4pm local time), and looking towards the south, more or less (perhaps anywhere from southeast to southwest).

    The sunlit hemisphere of each cannonball will “rotate” from left to right during the course of the day as seen from the north, so by analyzing the two photographs at sufficiently high resolution, it will be a trivial matter to determine which was taken first, assuming that they were taken on the same day, and not within a very short time of each other (which would be unlikely due to the time needed to move a bunch of heavy cannonballs).