Several people told me about this long article by Errol Morris about which of Roger Fenton’s “Valley of The Shadow of Death” photos came first. I have to admit that while I usually don’t mind reading long articles, I didn’t make it through this one (neither did my sources - I’m in good company!). When I read the Susan Sontag quote he starts of with (“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, Fenton made two exposures from the same tripod position: in the first version of the celebrated photo he was to call â€œThe Valley of the Shadow of Deathâ€ […], 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.”) the most important point is contained in the first part: “many of the canonical images of early war photography turn out to have been staged, or to have had their subjects tampered with”. I might be entirely mistaken (as always), but which photo was taken first is of very little - if any! - consequence for the main point here. It’s not like Sontag’s argument completely falls apart if what she thought was the second photo turns out to be the first. I think talking about the consequences of the staging - if we want to call it that - would have been somewhat more interesting (and important) than discussing which photo came first.
Update (two articles later): “I suppose he is deadly serious, but I can not help reading Errol Morris’s New York Times investigation into Roger Fenton’s Crimean photographs without wondering if it is all some elaborate parody. A sort of CSI: Photography with laughtrack. […] More than one thousand comments have been left on the saga. […] Morris appears to launch into a journey to catch Sontag out. How could she know which image came first? Thousands of words later we know that Sontag was correct. She was ‘Right’, says Morris, ‘but for the wrong reasons’. Given that she gave her reasons in two sentences rather than several essays, I think she did a fine job.” (story)