Thursday, October 9, 2008

ARTICLE: Errol Morris: Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

An entry from Errol Morris' blog for The New York Times.
Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?


Errol Morris presents us with a discussion of the way in which a meeting between academia and photography has captured an obscure moment from the Crimean war and in doing so preserved (or created) the extra-photographic narrative of Roger Fenton and his assistant: daring wartime photographers or cowards; master craftsmen or disingenuous cheats.

This piece not only demonstrates Mr. Morris' abilities as a documentary researcher but it also goes beyond the extant work on the topic; extending this discourse with the article. His researcher's journey is prompted by only two sentences from Sontag's On Photography. Through his attention to these sentences Morris uncovers a controversy in academia and extends the debate regarding the propriety of Fenton's photographs of “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”. By proposing a contest to the readers of the New York Times, Morris further extends the discourse initially represented by a mere two sentences and a few footnotes. This discussion raises important questions regarding authorial intentionality and critical interpretation.

Morris' focused inquiry reveals a criticism of Sontag's assumed authority within On Photography that is made clear by Morris' careful wording and footnoted critique of Sontag's unwillingness to include the photographs in her work. His blog assumes the voice of a video documentary complete with transcriptions of interviews and sometimes abrupt transitions suggestive of film editing techniques. Within this form is encoded Morris' critique of Sontag's authorial voice and polarization of an unclear discussion regarding not only the circumstances of two dated wartime photographs but also of a very dead man's bravery and character. Morris likens the cultural function of photographs to Ruskin's pathetic fallacy, a comparison that I agree with as both are results of technology's influence on 19th century thought.

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