the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Concerning Photographic Evidence

Posted by gninja on September 26, 2007


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


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

Since the invention of the Daguerrotype, the status of photographs as objective depictions of nature has been debated.  So common was the belief that the camera was just an eye that photography had a rough time of it achieving the status of art.

And even though art historians and curators now express the general consensus that photographs are just as imbued with intention and subjectivity as the other fine arts, there still is some lingering fascination with the notion of photo as evidence.

To wit.  A recent opinion piece in the NY Times regarding the two photos above. The photographs, taken by Roger Fenton in April 1855, outside Sebastopol show the same landscape differing only in the absence and presence of cannon balls in the road. The author of the Times’ article went on a journalistic adventure, sleuthing about to determine which of the photos was taken first. His article spills some more ink over an issue that is already drenched in it.

Unsurprisingly, the author arrives at no conclusion and instead extends an invitation for the NY Times readers to compile their own “evidence” and make a case.

I was reminded a lot of Billy Kluver’s book A Day with Picasso,  the kind of art historical detective work a man like Dan Brown could really go for.  In the book, Kluver pieces together into their “original” sequence a series of 24 photos taken by Jacques Cocteau on a day out with Picasso and pals.

Fun, I guess.

But these sorts of endeavors conceal the calculated (and subjective) nature of the photograph, preferring instead to establish some kind of reality, ferret out some kind documentary quality from the images.  Sure, the photos by Cocteau were taken in a particular order– that’s how the day goes.  But why insist upon recreating that order? Why impose a narrative upon an un-ordered collection of images?

And I would ask the same question regarding Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death images.   I’m more interested in the existence of two photographs taken by Fenton (apparently, he did not often take more than one photograph in the same location). How does the juxtaposition of the two make a commentary about war? The very ambiguity of their order may be a deliberate mode of forcing the viewer to confront his or her own suppositions. I think we do an injustice to the photographer by assuming that he wanted only one of these to be the “actual” display photograph.  Which is what much of the debate around these sound like (though no one comes out and makes that supposition explicit)– i.e. “which photo did Fenton mean for realsies?”

One Response to “Concerning Photographic Evidence”

  1. zooeygoethe said

    The order of the photographs in A Day With Picasso was re-created for two (good, within the book) reasons: first, as an exercise in forensic … something or other, and second, to illustrate the day with Picasso – a day which progressed in a specific order.

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