Friday, October 05, 2007

Errol goes to the Crimea - Fenton Pt.II

(Photograph by Eric Zimmerman)

I mentioned Errol Morris's article on the two Roger Fenton photographs (the disappearing cannonballs) last week.

Morris has now put up part two wherein he travels to the Crimea to seek out the Valley of the Shadow of Death and Fenton's tripod holes lugging around Russian cannonballs. And I love his idea of the young Artillery Lieutenant Tolstoy leaving his fingerprints on the cannonballs that landed at Fenton's feet.

There is also a nice little bit on Fenton's "style":

"RICHARD PARE: Fenton always had a taste for the abstract and the geometrically formal in image making. There’s this strange collapsing of perspective that he gets because of the footpath that’s trodden into the left hand side of the road that connects up in the further distance to the main track as it disappears over the horizon. They have a parallel width that causes the thing to flip-flop in a way, visually condenses it into a kind of uneasy restlessness. He was very satisfied with the two pictures he made – in getting two negatives – and left it at that. The way it fits into the whole of his output is interesting."

An interesting and fun, if extensive, read (hopefully it won't reach 800+ comments to scroll through this time...)

"Olga led us first to the Woronzoff Ravine, marked on contemporary maps as lying to the east of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I was adamant. “No, no! This is the Woronzoff Ravine. This is not the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” There is always difficulty when you try to tell local guides their business, but we retraced our steps back to Sebastopol and took a different road, which took us up to a ridge to the west of the Woronzoff Ravine. At last we were able to look down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Miraculously, the area is still undeveloped. You can still see the remnants of trenches on the hill facing the Great Redan. The old Chapman Batteries. The cannonballs are gone but the ground is littered with very tiny snail shells on what is called Shell Hill in many accounts from the Crimean War. I don’t know why, but the snails made me feel connected to history...

Olga seemed amused. I am not a great believer in certainty, but I am pretty certain the Duke of Edinburgh never asked to go to the Panorama Museum to borrow a Crimean War cannonball...

...After some confusion, we were brought upstairs to meet the curator and some of the staff. (I told them I’d won an Oscar.) After a desultory conversation – as desultory as a conversation can be when none of the parties understand each other or have a clear idea of what is going on – I asked for a cannonball. There were additional translation difficulties. I remember Olga gesticulating wildly.

Successful, we returned to the Valley of the Shadow of Death with one cannonball and took various pictures.

(pictures by Bob Chappell.)

...“The demon is cruel and firm,” “he acquires a strange nimbleness…a new and baneful power,” “a tiger intent on the throat of a camel.” The soulless, inanimate world of the iron cannonball comes alive. Literally with a vengeance. Not only does the cannonball have intent – it plans, it connives… it is hopelessly devious, maybe even deviant.

Photographs are no different. We look at them. They are nothing more than silver halide crystals arranged on paper or with digital photography, nothing more than a concatenation of 1’s and 0’s resident on a hard-drive. Yet we believe they have captured something of our essence – something of the stuff that is in our heads.

I, too, look at the two Fenton photographs and try to imagine what Fenton’s intentions might have been. It’s unavoidable. We have been programmed to do so by natural selection – to project ourselves into the world – and to imagine his world as we imagine ours. I try to figure out which photograph was taken first and to develop theories about Fenton’s motivations, but these are just theories, nothing more."

But Pt.III (and presumably the film?) to come soon

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