Roger Fenton, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” (1855)
A depiction of absence during the Crimean War, Roger Fenton’s iconic photograph shows an empty landscape filled with death objects (cannonballs) that ask the viewer to consider how these cannonballs got there and what their presence replaced.
In Regarding The Pain of Others, Susan Sontag describes the way “canonical images,” such as this one, have been tampered with in order to create a greater affect. As she claims, the first shot of this photograph had more cannonballs on the left, but Fenton then scattered the weapons to create a new documentation of historical loss. To what degree does this alter the “moral authority” of images depicting atrocity? Fenton has altered the already absent landscape, and his taking of the photograph allows him to claim the scene as his own. With this artistic authorship in mind, does Fenton’s altering really alter our perception of the losses suffered?
If left untouched, the scene itself would have changed and eroded. Human manipulation only contributes to the lack of human experience felt in the image. A photograph is thought to capture a moment in time; but as time progresses, perceptions of images change. How many of us today think about the Chimean War? I doubt very many, but this image represents that it happened—that human life was there—and that human life was lost. And that loss coincides with the idea Sontag attributes to staged war photography: “a lost art.”