The iconic ‘Valley Of The Shadow Of Death’ Photograph, Truthful or Not?

This iconic photo that is recognise throughout the world to be one of the oldest known ‘war’ photographs ever taken entitled ‘Valley Of The Shadow Of Death’, which was taken by British photographer Roger Fenton in 1855. The only issue with the image is that two photographs where taken of the same scene depicting different outcomes, meaning the historic photograph might be one of oldest known examples of a staged photography.

Errol Morris, who is a well known documentary filmmaker has spent a significant amount of time investigating this mysterious photograph over the past decade. The main question for Morris was whether the scene was as Fenton found it, or whether he purposely placed cannonballs along the path himself to make the photograph more visually pleasing.

Shown below are the two images, the second photograph by Fenton, which is of exactly the same scene, yet there are no cannonballs scattered across it! The next question was therefore a “chicken or the egg” problem: which of the photographs were captured first? If it was the empty road one, then the scene was probably staged. If the iconic one, then it wasn’t.

After Morris read a book by Susan Sontag titled ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ Morris became interested in the case, in which Sontag insinuates that the photo is a fake:

“Not surprisingly many of the canonical images of early war photography turn out to have been staged, or to have had their subjects tampered with. After reaching the much shelled valley approaching Sebastopol in his horse-drawn darkroom, [Roger] Fenton made two exposures from the same tripod position: in the first version of the celebrated photo he was to call “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” (despite the title, it was not across this landscape, that the Light Brigade made its doomed charge), the cannonballs are thick on the ground to the left of the road, but before taking the second picture – the one that is always reproduced – he oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs on the road itself.”

Furthermore to add to Morris’s investigation, after consulting with numerous historians and photographic experts, Morris went as far as to travel to Crimea, Ukraine, where the photograph was captured, in order to investigate the scene himself. After all of that effort and time, he still came up with nothing to show for it.

Finally, the last piece to the puzzle, Morris and optical engineer Dennis Purcell noticed something that led them to a definitive conclusion: they realized that some of the small pebbles on the side of the road had moved. Since these were almost certainly kicked around as people treaded over them, Morris realized that the photograph showing the pebbles further downhill was the one that came later.

It was the iconic version.

Below is an interesting interview Errol Morris did with Radiolab discussing how he came to discover the truth about this iconic photograph that had hardly been questioned before:

Information: PetaPixel/Radiolab