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A stop to further travels

By David Tiley - posted Thursday, 31 January 2008

This is a photograph of Marcus Sparling, Roger Fenton’s assistant/colleague, on the cart which served as a mobile darkroom on their expedition to the Crimea in 1855. Inside are a brace of cameras, jars of chemicals, plates and the wine which could bring a touch of civilisation even to that legendary travelling wreck, the British Army encamped before Sebastapol.

Around April 16th, Fenton reconnoitred a piece of battlefield which the soldiers called “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”. It was a groove in the landscape in which the cannonballs lay around in drifts, and the British would harvest them so they could fire them in turn at the distant Russian batteries.


On the morning of the 23rd, Fenton made to return to this place, to take a photograph. The story goes that Sparling figured he may not make it back alive, so he made his master record his image. While this is not strictly provable, Fenton did write to his wife, saying:

The picture was due to the precaution of the driver on that day, who suggested as there were a possibility of a stop being put in that valley to the further travels of both vehicle and driver, it would be showing a proper consideration for both to take a likeness of them before starting.

If this is true, the man sitting on the coach is contemplating the real possibility that he could be blown to bits before the end of the day. I wonder if he thought Fenton was insane, or whether the two of them were grimly determined to capture the reality of war. Either way, the pictures are the very first of their type, ever.

The story is cited as an incidental detail in a lovely pair of posts by Errol Morris, a famed American documentary filmmaker, writing in his blog at the New York Times. He is much exercised by fakery, and became fascinated by what happened when Sparling and Fenton reached the battlefield, which was under fairly constant but random bombardment. Forced back from the original vantage point by sheer danger - a large wetplate camera, a couple of suited gents and a nearby portable darkroom with a restless horse were surely easy to see through an imperial telescope - Fenton took two pictures further down the road. In one, the road is littered by cannonballs, in the other it is cleared. The coincidence of two photographs identical except for the interference in the documentary fidelity of the image, shot so early in the history of the medium, by an absolute pioneer of photojournalism has excited the ratiocinative powers of several theorists.

Morris takes the question up here and then here. (Part three and possibly four are yet to follow.)

He does a fabulous whack-a-mole job on those who argue about Fenton’s motives in doing this, beyond the obvious desire to create a compelling image using equipment which reduced humans to blurs and his enterprise to a slow moving target. Between the post and the comments we read a wonderful looping disquisition on metaphor, historical truth, the search for motivation, the folly of fighting in a Holy Land church, and the contingency of Tolstoy’s survival at Sebastapol. This is the Internet at its discursive best.


But I am left to wonder how much it all matters. When is a fake a fake, and when is a fake important? If Tolstoy is crafted into that line of people waving alongside Stalin in Red Square as the doomed Soviet army left to face the Nazis, that is clearly a Very Bad Thing. Alexander Gardiner moved dead soldiers around to compose them more affectively - and that is at least in very bad taste.

Capra’s picture of the soldier falling back in the Spanish Civil War has been identified as a man caught at the moment of death; the allegation that it is a man tripping over in training is serious because the title makes a specific claim about a time. But if we assume with Fenton’s critics that he instructed people to place cannon balls on the road, is this such a sin? All he was doing was recreating something he had seen because the rest of the landscape is littered with ordnance and the road must have been, until it was cleared.

His critics were trying to impugn his bravery too, but the emphasis on deception at this moment puzzles me. I notice as well that Morris is fastidious about his use of transcripts. Irrelevant remarks are left in the text (partly because they are fun) and clumsy repetitions of points made elsewhere are allowed to stand. When I use direct quotes in an article, I hack them around as if they are bits of plasticine, although I only ever serve the sense which the interviewee intends.

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First published in Barista on October 8, 2007.

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About the Author

David Tiley is an Australian film writer who edits the email and online industry magazine “Screen Hub” and is slumped listlessly in front of a computer as you read this. David blogs at Barista.

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