Posing for History
In a three-part New York Times Opinionator series, film director Errol Morris tried to solve a conundrum: a pair of photos taken at the exact same location on the same afternoon during the Crimean War show cannon balls on a road as well as off to the side. Which photo was taken first and why did the photographer (Roger Fenton) change the shot for the second? Morris interviewed roughly a dozen people for the series, and even took a trip to the Crimea to place himself in the exact location photographed. Eventually he did figure it out (I’ll let you find out the answer yourself in part 3).
At one point, while talking to Gordon Brown, a former curator of the Getty Museum, Morris says “[Susan Sontag] mentions how one of the Fenton photographs was posed or staged. That we’re always disappointed when we learn that a photograph has been posed… according to Sontag, a fake photograph is a photograph that’s been posed.”
As someone interested in the Civil War, this certainly grabbed my attention. The Civil War was the first American war that was photographed widely, and many of these images are iconic to this day. Specifically, Matthew Brady and his associate Alexander Gardner took many photos of dead Civil War soldiers, most notably in the aftermaths of the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. In fact, “Gardner was determined to arrive at … battlefields as soon as possible to photograph the rotting corpses of America’s fallen men. He likely knew these shocking images would receive the most attention from the public.” (source)
But even just the bloated corpse of a dead Confederate (and these Northern photographers almost exclusively photographed dead Confederate soldiers, Brown tells Morris) wasn’t enough. As detailed by historian William A. Frassanito, Gardner’s men altered these photos, by hand coloring some of the black and white negatives with red ink to highlight the blood of the battle, and even more extreme, “posing” the photos by using fake props like guns and sometimes moving the dead soldiers.
Are these posed photos harmful to historians? To be sure, they do not tell exactly the “true” story of the subjects. Yet, that does not mean they are fake. That unfortunate sniper was killed in Gettysburg. Those cannonballs were fired in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. So they still demonstrate the history of their time and place. At the same time, historians using both old and new images, must be cognizant of the context of the images they use. And yes a healthy dose of skepticism might be necessary.
(This skepticism has some benefits. For example, humor site cracked.com has an ongoing series “Images you won’t believe aren’t Photoshopped.” Here is part 12, with one of the photos pasted below).