Friday, 7 January 2011

Bite 33: Roger Fenton - The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Crimea, 1855

The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Crimea, 1855
"Once he left his studio, it was impossible for the photographer to copy the painters' schema. He could not stage-manage the battle, like Uccello or Velázquez, bringing together elements which had been separate in space and time, nor could he rearrange the parts of his picture to construct a design that pleased him better.
From the reality before him he could only choose that part that seemed relevant and consistent, and that would fill his plate. If he could not show the battle, explain its purpose, its strategy, or distinguished its heroes from its villains, he could show what was too ordinary to paint: the empty road scattered with cannon balls, the mud encrusted on the caisson's wheels, the anonymous faces, the single broken figure by the wall.
Intuitively, he sought and found the significant detail. His work, incapable of narrative, turned to symbol."
                                                              - John Szarkowski
The most significant of early war photographs. It features no soldiers, wounded bodies, corpses or active conflict. This is the earth scarred after war, debris covering the ground, cannon balls scattered, the sky above stark white.

A Modernist take on war, the strength of the image is in its ambiguity, in its brutal minimalism. As Szarkowski points out, devoid of narrative or figure, the earth, the details of the cannon balls, speak volumes.

John Szarkowski, The Photographer's Eye, Museum of Modern Art, 1966.