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Tags errol morris , photography , susan sontag

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Old 26th September 2007, 05:28 PM   #1
jimtron
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Errol Morris, skeptic detective

This article in the NYT by filmmaker Errol Morris is interesting, and shows the importance of critical thinking (and how many of us make assumptions based on nothing). It's hard to sum this up in a sentence or two, but the article involves historical photographs, Russian cannonballs, Susan Sontag, and the book, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death: The Triumph of Photography.”

(I hope this is the appropriate forum for this thread. I thought about posting it in History and Literature, but to me the relevant thing is how effectively Morris uses skepticism and critical thinking.)
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Old 27th September 2007, 05:14 AM   #2
Big Les
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Very interesting read so far. I'd just comment before I've digested the whole thing that the study of history and the past in general is rather more reliant upon anecdote and other evidence of lesser quality and quantity than sceptics are typically used to. For that reason it's absolutely packed with mistakes and re-interpretations. It's part of the process.

Even if not stated outright, you should treat every claim by an historian as just one possible interpretation. With gaps in the evidence of this sort, it becomes a fine line between allowing leeway for interpretation and having rampant speculation of the sort seen in pseudo-history (shameless blog plug here ).

ETA - Having read all the way through, the conclusion to draw seems to be that we should exhaust the possibilities with direct reference to the evidence before we start second-guessing motivations and psychology. In this example, historians have offered damning comment without actually applying analysis to the two photographs or the context given by the letters to Fenton's family. The latter suggests that if he did re-arrange the shot, he made no effort to hide the fact. Looking at the photos, the gif comparison between the two photos here is very interesting, and the lighting seems to suggest that the photo with the balls on the road was taken before the one without.

My gut reaction to the photo is that the balls on the road look placed, as they did to Sontag. But I can't quantify that feeling. Objectively, I think they were probably there before the photos were taken. I suspect that we're looking at the same misleading bias-ridden casual attempts at photo-analysis that feed conspiracy theories. The fact that there are two photos is not evidence of deception, and the fact that the balls on the road look out of place, doesn't mean that they were. The suggestion of deception is a fair enough interpretation to throw into the debate as a possibility, but carries no more weight than any other. It can be criticised, and according to the way history should work, it is being.

Last edited by Big Les; 27th September 2007 at 06:02 AM. Reason: I've read it all now!
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Old 4th January 2008, 08:49 AM   #3
Big Les
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Thought I'd bump this now that Morris has come to his conclusion (three parts later).

http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com/2007...n-photographs/

To save people the read, Morris set out to prove people like Susan Sontag wrong, who used the received wisdom that Fenton had "faked" his "Valley of Death" photo to further her political writing. In the event, he finds out and admits that all evidence points to Fenton having "dressed" the photo by moving cannonballs from the side of the road, onto the road, for a more dramatic photograph.

True scepticism in action I feel - he saw that the evidence given for a claim was weak, assessed it himself, and came to the same conclusion as the detractors, albeit for evidential reasons, not simple cynicism.
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