Epistemic Shadows: Can sunlight explain a photographic mystery?

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

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Morris believes that shadows are the key. Yes, I'm back onto the actual path of Morris's investigation, where he's been pursuing the question 'which of Fenton's Crimean pictures came first?' and I've been pursuing his pursuit. He thinks that by measuring the angle of shadows from the cannonballs he can determine what time of day each picture was taken and, thus, get them in the correct order. A shadow is the back third of a three-part connection: the light, the solid body, the shadow. The darkness of a shadow, though, is not opaque. You can still see what's under it. Fenton's photographs from The Valley of the Shadow of Death have been Morris's jumping off point for a discourse on what's visible underneath.

His first Crimean Cannonball post goes up in late September last year with an excerpt from Eliot's "The Hollow Men":

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow...

I don't know if Morris pre-wrote all of his posts and let them eke out over a several-month span. It seems unlikely. The farthest ahead I've ever planned was a two-post set over maybe two days. But don't let me fall prey to the intentional fallacy based on my experience--I don't know what he intended to do. Figuring that he didn't pre-plan his entire series on photography, I'll note simply that his choice of epigraph was remarkable.*

A month later, in his third part to the investigation, Morris begins with a line from a conversation with his friend Dennis Purcell:
"Too bad it was a cloudy day. You can't really see any shadows."

Then he tracked down some more experts, always with the experts, to help run his measurements. First, "a shadow expert" (his quotes), Ralph Bouwmeester. I, like Morris, am amazed that there is such a thing. But go Google it. Google is truth, right? This guy had a "hunch" that the cannonballs had been moved from the hill to the road, that OFF came first and ON came second. But that didn't move along the investigation because, as Morris says, Bouwmeester wasn't looking at the shadows, "he was looking for things hidden in the shadows."

Next is Chris Russ, a forensic photography expert. Russ gets very excited as he talks to Morris about figuring out this puzzle. But there's a problem with Russ's analysis for Morris, which he calls "an epistemic shadow." What a great phrase. Epistemic shadow. Russ is trying to match contrasts between the two pictures. By examining the contrasts of light on the different cannonballs he thinks he can figure out what time of day the pictures were taken, but his discussion thereafter gets confusing to me. I had to re-read the passage to figure out what this guy was driving at.

The epistemic shadow, which I did get, follows from this: even if he figures out differences in contrast, there are too many variables to consider before one can conclude anything. If the contrast from the cannonballs differs, is it because of clouds, haze, their positions in the valley, their sizes, their textures, "an artifact of how the emulsion was put on the glass-plate, or how it was exposed, developed or printed"? How could you ever tell if the effect was from the sun or from the photographic process? Even if you did figure out the contrast contrast, what would you then know? Beats them. It's an epistemic shadow.

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Andy Warhol's "Shadows" series, 1979 (Dia Art Foundation)

The Russ line of inquiry eventually gets back into the pathetic fallacy, with which we've already dealt. Most of his reasons for deciding that OFF came first, ON second (that Fenton moved the cannonballs to the road for the second picture) are "based on the psychology of people, about why they do the things they do, about how they would act, do act, have acted - independent of the question of what we can learn from the photograph itself," says Morris. In Russ's words, "If he's a photographer, he's going to do the best he can to control lighting. It's what I would do." "The first picture was because he had a feeling that it was going to be a good picture, and he didn't know if that was the only he was going to get. And the second one is the one he wanted to publish." "Putting cannonballs on the road does add to the aesthetics of the image. That seems to be the primary reason. He's a photographer, that's the way those people think."

Parenthetically, Morris writes that Russ is "arguing that to interpret a picture we need more than the picture itself...We need context." (Double parenthetically, I can now refer back to a comment one of our readers made on an earlier entry in the present series of posts that hits on this "context" thing from another angle, let alone Pt. 6, devoted to the same. The pathetic fallacy is a fallacy, I agree, but having to go beyond the artifact itself, the picture, to understand something about the context of its production is not.)

Things are starting to cinch together for Morris and now for me. In a move that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up in either surprise or glee or to encourage me to shave, Morris jumps on the Daston and Galison train, observing that "One of the things we do in image analysis is we control the situation under which the image was taken so we can make these inferences." Then, a few lines down: "The problem with the scientific side of it is that the photographer was not a neutral observer. He picked the best picture he could find. That's the problem when you look at a picture in a scientific journal and underneath it there's a little caption that says, 'Representative image'."

Well. The representative image. Someone oughta write a whole book about that. Maybe co-author it.

Eventually, and in conversation with the aforementioned Dennis Purcell, Morris gets away from the pathetic fallacy, the psychology of Fenton, and the irrational exuberance of Chris Russ to find his solution. I need to get to that in the next part, though what the hell, you already know the answer because Morris's blog is right here on this very same internet. (At the same time, who am I kidding, that hasn't stopped me yet--why would it now?)

The history of photography and the subject of truthful images will eventually bleed into some talk on cinema and filmmaking. Morris does edge towards them at a few points. Before getting back to Purcell, he makes reference to Antonioni's Blow-Up, "often taken as an essay on the subjectivity of truth." But he doesn't interpret the film that way, even though it turns on evidence of a photographer. "It is closer to the opposite," Morris writes, without then getting into Rashomon. (One of his readers does, here, in a reply to another post about the Abu Ghraib pictures.) I would've pointed to John Cassevetes' first film, Shadows (1959) -- for its title, sure, but also I bet I would've said it's particularly interesting that Cassevetes often fabricated the details of how he made this. It took a lot of work for film scholars to piece together the truth of its fiction. As Richard Powers writes in Three Farmers, "The true power of photography and motion pictures, the trick that allows us to live imaginatively in the frame, is not the perfection of technique but the selective obscuring of it."

And speaking of synchroneity, all times at once, I notice that photographer Yuri Kozyrev has called the Iraq War a "War of Shadows" in this photo series in Time. How about that.

*You know, even if he did plant that quote for its staging of the next parts of his essays, well, it was a good choice.

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