The Power of Photography

How do you use photography as a source of history? How do you understand photographs from a historical point of view? 

Errol Morris addresses this topic within his Which Came First? series of articles. The series demonstrates the delicate line between the meaning that is giving to a photograph by a third party versus the meaning a photograph’s inherent content and context.  Morris elaborates on this when he says that “photographs preserve information. They record data. They present evidence. Not because of our intentions but often in spite of them.”[1]

Morris conclusion stems from his analysis of the puzzle surrounding The Valley of the Shadow of the Dead photographs by Roger Fenton. The conundrum lies in the debate over which photo came first: the one with cannonballs on the road or the one with the cannonballs off the road. Errol begins a quest, questioning the different interpretations there could be about this subject, bringing new light to the issue.

Historically, I don’t think it is important to know which photo came first since they were both taken by the same photographer at the same place one after the other. Each has its own meaning and its own intentions. What really matters here, and what Errol unveils, is the charge that it is given to the photographs by third party interpretations. Allowing the photographs to “speak for themselves” and interpret only what is blatantly available is important because what it is deemed obvious by the viewer may in fact not be accurate.

The example of The Valley of the Shadow of the Dead photos were taken in the nineteenth-century, however, how do we best approach contemporary photography? Today, photoshop provides a grand challenge. The Achilles’ heel of journalist, historians and others, this tool – and tools like it – are hated by some and loved by others. On this subject, Morris wrote the article Photography as a Weapon, analyzing that he calls the “fraud of digital photography.” Not only does this technology alter photography but also the meaning it is giving to it.

Traditional and contemporary forms of photography are both information recorders. They are forms of historical evidence and thus need to be seen as a whole in their proper context. In a digital, altered photograph today, the fact that it was altered is part of the data it holds. That becomes part of evidence it possesses. Who alerted it? For what reason? These are the historical questions that we should be asking when looking photography since its significance is in the information it bears and the approach with which it is viewed.





[1] Errol Morries. “Which Came First? (Part Three): Can George, Lionel and Marmaduke Help Us Order the Fenton Photographs?. The New York Times. October: 2007.  


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