Dec 19, 2007

Two pictures, thousands of words*, **, ***, ****

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris makes fascinating use of the Internet in a project over at the New York Times, asking readers to help cut through the psychological suppositions to get at an unanswerable answer.

The question has to do with cannon balls on a road (and not on a road) in two famous photographs from the Crimean War. Is one of the photographs staged? If so, which one?

I've only read the first of three stories so far. Asterisks to come.

*In reading through the first hundred or so comments on Morris' first story, a pattern emerges: Most of the readers think a simple examination of data within the frames will provide an easy answer. They discount motivations and psychological factors that could easily change the interpretation of their facts. Then there are a few comments scattered among the others from readers who wonder why the question needs to be answered at all.

**Oh, I forgot to mention the more studious readers who keep asking for better quality photographs to examine. As if higher resolution will bring a resolution.

***As the day moves on, later commentators (those who sleep in are less empirically minded?) start to look at motivations and come back to theory. The odd grouping of the cannon balls on the road, the fact that they could have been brought in from somewhere else, that light and shadow in 150-year-old photographs isn't a reliable measure, that other "facts" are based on assumptions... Again, fascinating stuff.

****My own questions: Why take a second photograph if he was not looking for improvement? Why not mention in your letter (you have to read the article) what happened during the gap between the two photographs, especially if it was something significant like A. a new volley of cannon balls or B. soldiers out harvesting in a dangerous place? Which is the better picture/the one he favored? Couldn't he have carried additional balls out to the field in his photographer's van? (I guess he staged the cannon ball shot in the road) OK, enough asterisks. I'll create a new post for the second article.

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