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The Quirks and Cannonballs of Errol Morris

Quirky (but Oscar-winning!) director Errol Morris has an irregular feature in The New York Times titled Zoom, in which he muses about photographs and their power to inspire or mislead.

Sometimes he moves beyond musings into delightful obsession. He’s just published part two of a three-part report on two almost-identical photographs taken by photo pioneer Roger Fenton during the Crimean War.

The simple question at hand was whether one photograph was staged. Crimean War photo buffs (a small but hardy band) have generally assumed that Fenton scattered cannonballs on a roadway to make one shot look more dramatic.

But Morris goes Sherlock Holmes on the topic, turning it into an analysis of ethics, ballistics, cowardice, the scholarship of Susan Sontag, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and quite a bit more. Eventually he takes a camera crew to Crimea, hiring a cranky guide along the way, to recreate the shot himself.

Part two is a cliffhanger; he’s saving his final conclusions for an upcoming part three. But if you like a good detective story, begin with part one.

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