Famous ‘Valley Of The Shadow Of Death’ Photo Was Almost Certainly Staged

You might recognize the photograph above. Titled Valley Of The Shadow Of Death and snapped by British photographer Roger Fenton in 1855, it’s considered to be one of the oldest known photographs of warfare. Problem is, it might also be one of the oldest known examples of a staged photograph.

Renowned documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has spent a considerable amount of time investigating the photograph over the past decade. The main question on the table was whether the scene was as Fenton found it, or whether he littered the path with cannonballs himself to make the photograph more powerful.

There’s actually a second version of the photograph — one that shows the same scene, except with a road devoid of cannonballs:

The question was therefore a “chicken or the egg” problem: which of the photographs was captured first? If it was the empty road one, then the scene was probably staged. If the iconic one, then it wasn’t.

Morris became interested in the case after reading a book by Susan Sontag titled Regarding the Pain of Others, in which the author claims (in two brief sentences) 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.

In addition to 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, he still came up empty-handed.

Finally, 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.

And that’s the story of how Mr. Morris came to discover one of the earliest staged photos known to man.

(via Yahoo via HuffPo)

P.S. You can hear Morris talk about this photograph in this great interview he recently did with Radiolab:

  • Steve Stevenson

    Looks like a shop.

  • Norbert

    Couldn’t they have just checked the light on the canon balls? The source changes across both shots so you can just do a sunlight study (easy in 3D software) and you would have the answer.

  • Fra Lippi

    I really don’t see this as a problem. This photograph was created at a time when journalistic photography was in its infancy. The discussion about how a photographer should or shouldn’t interact with a scene (staging, posing, etc) hadn’t happened yet. Sure, if this happened today Fenton would be fired from the AP and lose his Pulitzer. But that’s because of the standards of photojournalist integrity created decades after this photo was taken.

  • Dave

    “which of the photographs was captured first?”

    Just check the exif info….duh.

  • F#32Graph

    This was already discussed on NPR. IMO, I don’t think it matters if this photograph was staged. This is what the photographer wanted the viewer to see. If we look back at photographs of the civil war, lots of Brady’s photographs were staged. Does it make them less powerful. when you photograph don’t you the photographer choose what you want in or out of the frame. We are led to believe that photographs tell truth. IMO that’s not possible.

  • Kathleen Grace

    Well, I realize I’m looking a low resolution photos, but photo 2 has deeper shadows so it’s of course either earlier or later than photo 1 – photo 1 the sun was certainly higher in the sky. However, looking at the cannonballs in the road, many of them don’t show shadows on the ground, and the road appears smoothed out in photo 1. There are some who still question whether the Iwo Jima flag raising photo was staged, it was after all the second flag raising. However, even the first flag raising was forced on them from stories told, so in these cases, the only reason it would matter is regarding awards and recognition. In war they are not mindless of the power of the pictorial image. Propaganda is a powerful thing and we were not strangers to it – WWII posters, and heroic photographic images. Why not?

  • Steven Lilley

    Has Morris nothing better to do?

  • Benicio Murray

    listen to the interview

  • Benicio Murray

    As the NPR interview stated – “emotional truth” is there in the photo

  • Norbert

    Thanks for the reminder – I didn’t have my headphones.

    That said, his methodology is a bit thin – the cannonballs are spheres with comparable and different light on them. 3D studio max can be used to re-create this from the GPS position and mimic the reflections on balls. This isn’t inconsistent shadows, it is a much repeated feature of each shot.

  • stanimir stoyanov

    the exif info might have been lost … just check the filename.

  • chphotovideo

    im sure he had some kind of grant. someone else (the gov) paying for him to do his ‘research’. If someone paid for me to do this kind of ‘research’, then I’d do it all day every day

  • chphotovideo

    Im not sure I follow the importance here? He simply walked out there and rolled some from the ditch back onto the road. Very likely they were there to start with and had been rolled out of the road. Did he truck in extra cannon balls to litter the scene? Kill a hoarse and lay there? Burn down the house to create extra devastation? Would this be the same ‘staging’ as yelling at someone so they look at you? This is the same crap as the guys on the skyscraper eating lunch. They say it was staged. Where those guys models? Who were brought in to sit there and pretend to eat? Where they actually works who actually eat lunch up there and a photographer just asked them “hey guys, can you sit over here and eat instead of over there?”

  • Vylen

    It could’ve been staged – if you take into consideration the human tendency to evenly space objects in an attempt to randomise their placement. Looking at the canon balls, they do look spaced at distances close to each other with no clusters or groupings. Of course, that could just be a statistical anomaly :)

  • Mitch Labuda

    Photographers using or making images about war is somehow controversial? Artists of all stripes have and will continue to try and show what they see and how they want the world to be influenced by the images they create

  • Dr. Frank Simon 

    brilliant reply!

  • Christopher King

    This is widely known. Same goes for the Matthew Brady Studio photos…Back then people understood they were staged but took away other truths that they could. Think of it being more like editorial photos than “fly on the wall” style of shooting.

  • Terry Towery

    Wow spoiler much? It is a fascinating 3 part article that is as good a page turner as any yet you summarize the ending in a sentence.

  • StevenBarall

    I saw old prints of these two photos at the Met Museum several years ago. The explanation they gave makes perfect sense and for some reason Errol Morris refuses to accept it and instead has concocted his own conspiracy theory because Morris has decided that he is the world’s greatest expert on photography. The New York Times thinks that also because they are clueless and they idolize Morris because they consider him to be a cultural icon.

    The first photo is the one with the cannon balls in it. The reason that the cannon balls are not in the second shot is that they were gathered up and fired back and here is the explanation.

    The Crimean War was fought by the Russians against France,Great Britain, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire. The Met Museum described that one army would lob cannon balls at the other army and later when things calmed down, the army on the receiving end of the cannon balls would gather them up and fire them back and then later they would have those cannon balls fired back at them and so on and so forth and this is how that war was fought. There was a shortage of cannon balls.

    That’s it. Have a nice day everyone, you too Errol.

  • harumph

    You failed to mention that Morris has written a book on this topic. It’s called Believing Is Seeing: Observations On The Mysteries Of Photography, and it came out a year ago. It covers this photograph and others in great detail.

  • harumph

    It’s his job. It’s what he does for a living. He’s an author and a documentary filmmaker. This was research for his book, Believing is Seeing, which came out a year ago. This is all probably just a promotional effort for an upcoming paperback edition.

  • Kylie

    Interesting. In my photography history class, we were taught that this famous photo was indeed, staged which I don’t have a problem with.

  • Captain Jack Aubrey

    I think you’re missing the point. No one is disputing that the cannonballs are “there”; the question is: how did they get there?

  • Norbert

    I don’t think I am missing the point. I am saying that the light-on-canon-balls is different in one picture than it is in the other. The light can be used to gauge the time of day (reverse engineer in 3D software). Nothing to do with their presence or absence.

  • Fretka

    As early (pre-civil war) cannon balls did not explode, I have to wonder why an army would use single balls against troupes as they were designed to penetrate battlements and earthworks, not canister shot (multiple small rifle-sized balls) which would be utilized as anti-personnel munitions.
    Either way, this precise location would not be where the battle occurred as this is where the shot came to rest, the battle would have been closer to the enemy’s position.

  • IWSYFPhoto

    Wouldn’t be the 1st time a war image was staged, anyone remember the not so famous 1st image of the flag raising at Iwo Jima on Mt. Suribachi taken by Louis R. Lowert, USMC.

    Ahh.. the first one was not that dramatic, so the big guys ordered a second flag raising which is the more widely known photo by Joe Rosenthal. The was completely staged, as the 1st flag was already flying, but the commander complained they could not see it from the landing ships, so hence the need for the second shot with a much larger flag, which was taken from the USS Missoula.

    I remember seeing a documentary where Rosenthal met Lowery, actually passing him coming down the mountain, stating that they were getting ready to put up a larger flag.

    I guess what I am saying is, staging a photo is probably more common then one thinks, it’s a matter of the context and purpose of the staging, just like the use of photoshop.

    Here they are:

  • Wil Bryan

    In the photo with no cannon balls on the road, look at the
    path on the left side. About 1.25 inches up and 1 inch in from the bottom left
    corner above that path you will see a cannon ball deeply impressed into the earth as if it fell
    from a distance or hit with force. In the photo with the balls on the road, the
    (presumably) same cannon ball is moved to the opposite side of the path and to
    the foreground of the photo but is clearly not sitting in an impact crater (as
    it would obscure the cannon ball). I believe that he took the photo with none
    on the road first. That said, cannon balls are an inaccurate weapon and when
    fired land where they please. Soldiers must keep roads clean so they roll them
    to the ditches or recycle them for later firing. He probably re-placed some
    cannon balls onto the road in craters that were made by others to depict the
    even dispersal and the scene as it was, undisturbed by soldiers. He was letting
    us know how pock marked and damaged even the roads were at the time. He wasn’t documenting,
    he was telling a story.

  • james

    could be real and was cleaned up afterwards. notice that there’s a horse cart trail running around the side of the road going around the part of the road that is littered with cannonballs. back in those days you had explosive and non-explosive cannonballs. looks as though people might have been weary of potential duds laying in the road; or just difficult to ride over.. perhaps the army came by and and cleared them later on..