Balls on or Balls off?
September 27, 2007 6:32 AM   Subscribe

Which came first: Cannonballs On or Cannonballs Off? Errol Morris asks a seemingly simple but perhaps unanswerable question about the nature of photographic evidence. (previously)

It's a long piece, so I'll mention that at the end Morris says "I would like to propose a contest to the Times’ readership — an invitation to order the photographs and to propose reasons why they must be in that order. Anything is fair game. Any kind of evidence may be considered, and I will discuss the solutions in a followup article. Good luck." There are currently 640 comments.
posted by Horace Rumpole (53 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
posted by yhbc at 6:44 AM on September 27, 2007 [5 favorites]

This is an awesome article. The clarity is expression and innocent depth of question. Wow.
posted by DU at 6:49 AM on September 27, 2007

I think the article is riveting and so are the responses. Thanks for posting it. You beat me to it.
posted by WyoWhy at 7:01 AM on September 27, 2007

The piece is very Morris-esque, in the way that he doesn't tell you where he's going. At the start, when he's talking to Keller, I kept thinking "but there's a perfectly good practical explanation: Cannonballs would get in the way, so soldiers would naturally get them off the damn road -- if they're there, they must have been put there."

Then, read further, and he talks to the historian who says that the Brits were "harvesting" cannonballs. He has the reverse view: Soldiers came along while Fenton was setting up for the second picture, and harvested all the cannonballs. Which of course makes much more sense: Fenton probably didn't have time to go around seeding cannonballs, and it would have taken time to set up the next plate, and the cannonballs on the road were much more convenient....if you want to get methodical, you could actually go through and count them in the photos, but the historian's explanation sounds most plausible of all.

Anyway, I was still trapped in the psychological explanation, even as I tried to escape it. That strikes me as a lot like the way Morris structures his narratives, and I wonder how much intentionality there is to it. If he really means to do that -- then he's very good. (I haven't read much by him, before, but it's always interesting to me when you can see an artist's style reflected in other artistic media. I can't see his musical language in Miles Davis's paintings, for example, because I know jack shit about visual analysis, but I know a bit about text.)
posted by lodurr at 7:02 AM on September 27, 2007

I thought this line was pretty interesting too: Which came first: a conjecture about the order of the photographs based on Fenton’s (real or imagined) intentions or a specific piece of historical information...

Obviously this echoes the question of OFF vs ON. Is Morris implying that someone who has a conjecture that is not based on evidence (i.e. Sontag and Keller) are the real intellectual "cowards" spicing up the story to make themselves appear "brave"?
posted by DU at 7:11 AM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wait for the second part, in which Errol Morris proves he is smarter and crazier or at least more studied than the 640+ as he's researched patterns and historic cycles of the sun and the weather in April of 1855 and visited the actual site to try and help him make a determination based on all the elaborate studies he has done of the photographs.

I saw him give this as a lecture at the Chicago Humanities Festival last year, and frankly, it was the most incredible lecture I've ever seen.

Really, the kicker is that he used this question as a framework for thinking about the Abu Ghraib photographs.

To me, that's the pinnacle of Criticism: giving the audience a completely unexpected perspective on a subject that is not intrinsic to the object of the discussion.
posted by pokermonk at 7:15 AM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

... the kicker is that he used this question as a framework for thinking about the Abu Ghraib photographs.

[double-take /]

OK, so, where can we see this? Out with it, or we'll break out the hoods and the terror-dogs!
posted by lodurr at 7:20 AM on September 27, 2007

I think he kind of forced the idea that the recycling theory is psychological. We do know that the soldiers recycled, so we definitely know that ON/OFF is a valid recycling theory. We do NOT know (or at least I didn't see proof in the article) that they recycled by throwing the cannonballs onto the road, so we don't know that OFF/ON is a valid recycling theory.

(Of course, as he points out, there's no evidence either way for whether recycling occurred between photographs.)
posted by DU at 7:22 AM on September 27, 2007

Hi, I'm Plato and I can overthink a cave.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:33 AM on September 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

Errol Morris on Abu Ghraib photos

(it's the subject of his next film)

If he could get away all of these tangential items about photography and its tricks and deceptions into the Abu Ghraib documentary (or transforming that original plan into this much greater scope), I think he would have something absolutely brilliant but also almost absolutely unmarketable.

From his First Person series: using movie-making as a guise to get hostages out of Iran (very tangential)

one of his Miller High Life ads (just for fun)

The actual lecture from CHF is nowhere that I've found (I've been wanting to make this FPP for awhile); this is the first I've seen of it since that day.
posted by pokermonk at 7:33 AM on September 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

(that was messy. sorry)
posted by pokermonk at 7:35 AM on September 27, 2007

If Errol Morris and Ken Burns went into the Thunderdome, Ken Burns would not walk out. Just saying.

This is a great article.
posted by mecran01 at 7:43 AM on September 27, 2007 [4 favorites]

So the NYT pays by the word, does it?
posted by GuyZero at 7:45 AM on September 27, 2007

Great question, terrific research. See also: your favorite Civil War photograph is a fake (and not taken by Mathew Brady, either).
posted by steef at 7:53 AM on September 27, 2007

Great article. I'd need bigger pictures to form my own opinion 100% but dropping them both in photoshop one above the other and switching the layer on and off seems to show that there are more cannonballs in the ON picture than the OFF picture. This would support the recycling theory. Unfortunately, because the resolution is so low and the exposure so much better in the ON picture it's hard to be certain there are really more cannonballs. The difference in the quality of the exposures suggest to me that the OFF picture was taken more hastily. Since Fenton didn't normally take multiple pictures of the same scene perhaps he did something like expose a picture, hop in his van to do some technical thing (did he process his pictures immediately?) got out and noticed how dramatically things had changed and took what amounts to snap shot to document it?
posted by Grod at 7:54 AM on September 27, 2007

interesting stuff!

I found myself noting the ways in which Morris uses the presentation of his text to position his authorial and editorial voice as transparent. By including irrelevancies such as interruptions concerning an old dog or a malfunctioning printer, the 'transcribed' sections appear to be unfiltered. At the same time, he injects his terms of art for the pictures ON and OFF directly into the apparent transcriptions where they are unlikely to have been spoken by the conversationalists.

As he is inviting us to consider the ways we accept or dismiss authenticity as a value measurement for a created and produced artifact he is directly employing the same techniques. Masterful.
posted by mwhybark at 8:02 AM on September 27, 2007 [7 favorites]

SO sorry, should be 'directly employing techniques designed to prompt acceptance of his work as authentic while calling attention to these techniques.'

Careful editing of one paragraph, in my case at least, apparently does not guarantee careful editing of the next.
posted by mwhybark at 8:04 AM on September 27, 2007

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a very important announcement to make:

posted by psmealey at 8:05 AM on September 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

...the 'transcribed' sections appear to be unfiltered.

That jumped out to me too. Those inclusions, plus things like "[laughter]" and "I hope that makes sense" make it sound literal, but if you ever really listen to people talk they don't have long cogent paragraphs with topic sentences coming out of their mouths.
posted by DU at 8:07 AM on September 27, 2007


What do you mean, this isn't about Star Wars?

*slinks away*

posted by eritain at 8:21 AM on September 27, 2007

For the longest time I thought that 'Valley of the Shadow of Death' photograph showed a road full of human skulls. Then I found out they were just cannonballs.
posted by Flashman at 8:27 AM on September 27, 2007

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a very important announcement to make:


Careful, I think someone peed in that end.

Seriously though; great article. Really enjoyed it.
posted by dazed_one at 8:28 AM on September 27, 2007

See also: your favorite Civil War photograph is a fake.

Man, you couldn't ask for a better demonstration of the difference between a genius and a crank. Every time that guy shoehorned in another piece of his "Emperor's New Clothes" metaphor in "quotes" I wanted to "slap" him.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:34 AM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I was interested in the story, but all the "THIS ISN'T YOUR PARENTS' KANSAS HOW FAR DOES THE RABBIT HOLE GO?!?" nonsense (not to mention a background color and font choice that fails to inspire confidence) made me give up.
posted by DU at 8:40 AM on September 27, 2007

...the 'transcribed' sections appear to be unfiltered.

In quite a few of his documentaries, Morris uses an editing technique (which I think is fairly individual to him) where the visual of the subject cuts to black for a second while the audio of the interview continues seemingly unbroken. I, at least, interpret these breaks as points where the interview has been filtered/edited and Morris is expressly telling the audience that there has indeed been a cut without disturbing the flow of the film/interview itself as a kind of cinematic/journalistic compromise (similar to an ellipses in writing). Because of that, I've always considered Morris as being very concerned with the ethical subtleties of film-making (I think even this series of editorials he has been writing are evidence of this). So, I'm not sold on Morris pulling a rhetorical stunt (other than the parenthetical OFF/ON bits) with the interviews.

Granted, I still feel like your suspicions could be correct, especially considering that the technique could deliberately relate to the themes of the essay/study.
posted by pokermonk at 8:57 AM on September 27, 2007

Sorry, I have to do this...

posted by Samizdata at 9:18 AM on September 27, 2007

Excellent object lesson in realism, documentary, and representation, fields which Morris traverses so deftly in his films.

At this point, depictions of that time period have been so corrupted for me by revelations of manipulation, over and above their inherent surreality and strangeness, as to render all photographic representations fictitious for me. I suggest that this is a sort of lie we've been trying to reverse or make seem healed since Nanook. Really, we're just better liars.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:27 AM on September 27, 2007

Awesome piece of detective work, wow.

I think Morris is right: it's ON, then OFF. First, because the cannonballs could have been moved to make room for a convoy of some sort to pass through. Second, the number of the cannonballs, and the fact that most of the cannonballs in the ditch at OFF are still in the ditch at ON. Third, because I don't believe the photographer would have been allowed to hang out in a war zone dragging cannonballs around the road. Fourth, because he didn't need to go to those lengths to find images of cannonballs littering a road; that would've been everywhere in Crimea. Fifth, because some of the cannonballs at ON are placed too far away to be clearly visible, making them almost useless and thus pointless to drag around. Sixth, because the Crimea is a hot place and it requires considerable investment of effort to carry out this work if you only have one or two people.

Two points of evidence for the other hypothesis:
First, the hill in the background is covered in fog in one picture, which suggests that it was taken in the morning. Second, because the road is not visibly torn up or damaged in any way by the shelling.
posted by nasreddin at 9:39 AM on September 27, 2007

posted by pyramid termite at 10:01 AM on September 27, 2007

A helpful NYT commenter has apparently superimposed one photo on another so you can toggle back and forth: link.

Two things. First, I loved the discursive, slightly meandering quality of the Morris piece, like for example when he included random asides from his interviews ("Excuse me while I help an old dog get on a chair," "Excuse me while someone comes in to fix my printer," etc.). Second, and I noticed that at least one NYT commenter felt the same way, but I was underwhelmed by the second supposedly more famous photo. Maybe it was just the small size, but I was surprised to hear that it was regarded as among the canonical war photographs of all time. I'm not saying that's not necessarily true, but it may be that you have to have some background on the photo to agree with that conclusion.

Oh, and yeah I have to lean toward ON being first. Especially after looking at the superimposed photos, it's hard to imagine all those cannonballs being imported into the scene, including most meaningfully, the additional balls scattered on the ground--not even on the road. It seems unlikely that you would collect cannonballs for a more dramatic shot and then just dump a few extra in the gully instead of adding them to the road. But who knows...
posted by chinston at 10:06 AM on September 27, 2007

First, the hill in the background is covered in fog in one picture,

It could also be smoke, since they were in a war zone.

It's interesting to me that these kinds of discussions are never held about sketches or paintings. A journalist using illustrations is not held to these sorts of standards, yet somehow implicit in photography is the notion that the photographer hasn't "staged" the photograph. Most people don't stop to consider the fact that photographs can be manipulated in much more subtle ways, by choosing a particular view or cropping the photograph, for instance. I feel than any painter who insists on accompanying their paintings with paragraphs about the painting in question is pretty much failing at painting- shouldn't your painting be adequate for conveying what your painting is about? Doesn't it just become an illustration for your prose if you have to right a screed for it to be meaningful?- but there's something about photography that seems to beg for exposition. I'm not sure why it is that the emotional impact of a photograph can change so radically once we've learned that it's "not real". It certainly happens to me, and I don't know if it's some part of me feeling indignant for feeling manipulated, especially since every other form of media is manipulative- including the article I just read. Everyone who has written about these two images has manipulated their prose to suit what they are trying to convey, yet somehow that's not OK when we are talking about photography.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:20 AM on September 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

This reminds me of discussions with my very fine art history professor in college, who's book (Trace and Transformation) gets into the issue of photographs being "real" or "staged" and how this questions was different in photography than in older forms of representation. His issue (as well as I understood it) was that photography represents a unique form in that the creation of a photograph generates a physical trace of an actual event - light reflected off a physical object directly causes a chemical transformation on the film, and we register that direct connection and relate to photographs as "real" representations. Yet all photography involves manipulation and transformation of the image; the idea of an unmanipulated photograph is an illusion. Likewise the act of taking a photograph involves manipulation of what's photographed; even passive manipulation (choosing the angle, exposure, etc.) impacts the interpretation of what's represented. Of course, the advent of the digital age, where the physical impact of the light is immediately transformed into infinitely fungible data (which is generally subjected to a certain amount of on-board manipulation to achieve some preconceived ideal immediately) makes the question of the "reality" of photography even more muddy.
posted by nanojath at 10:28 AM on September 27, 2007

This was mind-numbingly boring to me. Sorry.
posted by tadellin at 10:49 AM on September 27, 2007

... boring to me.

Well, Morris's films are mind-numbingly boring to most people, I think. (I know I have to use some discretion before recommending them.) It amazes me that he's as successful as he is.

I remember (way) back when Thin Blue Line came out, there was a lot of criticism around how he manipulated our perception through choice of image -- much criticism of his use of re-staging without pasting a big flashing THIS IS A DRAMATIZATION across the bottom the bottom of the screen. Before reading this, I didn't really have a sense for how he might feel about that kind of criticism; maybe I don't have a much better one now, but at least I know he thinks about it.
posted by lodurr at 11:20 AM on September 27, 2007

I really liked this essay. It's been a delightful meal after the amuse boucheé of reading some Chuck Klosterman meanderings about Saved By The Bell's relationship to authenticity which I read this morning.

I am looking forward to the film of this.
posted by klangklangston at 11:27 AM on September 27, 2007

It seems extremely unlikely to me that in an hour and a half, Fenton scurried all around and added so many cannonballs to the scene. There's no possibility that the "balls on" picture simply has balls moved from the ditch to the road. The toggle easily shows that, but just looking at the two pictures attentively shows it too. All the cannonballs in "off"are present, in the same places, as they are in "on". "On" just has a lot more of them in addition.

So that leaves two possibilities: Either "Off" was taken first and a lot of cannonballs were carried (implausible -- I count at least 30 more cannonballs in "on" than "off". That's some work.) or fired (even more implausible, since Fenton says nothing about a barrage in his letters) into the valley in between them. Or "on" was taken first and a lot of cannonballs removed afterward. We have a pretty plausible explanation of who would have done that and why (soldiers, for recycling) so it seems the obvious answer.
posted by rusty at 11:47 AM on September 27, 2007

[cannonballs randomly spread out across the field of view]
posted by quin at 11:54 AM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this was great. Morris is actually known for his crack detective work and thoroughness when researching his subjects. However much criticism he may have received for Thin Blue Line (and it was less than he got for Mr Death) it doesn't compare to the praise he got, and the fact that the film was singly responsible for freeing a man from prison who had been unjustly tried.

also: at first very quick glance I notice that there appear to be no marks on the road from cannonballs landing or rolling onto it at all. I may be wrong, or there could very well be other explanations, but I'm inclined to say that cannonballs, either landing on the road or rolling onto it after landing near the road, would have left some manner of groove, indentation or cratering.

Of course, there doesn't appear to be any of that AT ALL on the road (in either picture), despite it clearly having been shelled, so it's entirely possible that the road is of such hard packed stuff that it's too firm for the balls to make the kind of impact that they clearly made all over the rest of the landscape.
posted by shmegegge at 12:16 PM on September 27, 2007

Question to the editor: Why exactly should I care about this?
posted by MarshallPoe at 12:30 PM on September 27, 2007

Another interesting example of a set of images by one person that can be ordered in a graphic sequence, which then seems to imply a temporal sequence but may not actually do so. (Louis Wain's cats paintings previously discussed here back on Aug. 12
posted by jfuller at 12:43 PM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

can anyone tell me where I can dump a psd file for y'all to download if you want? I superimposed the pictures and transformed one of them so that it matched as closely as possible the landscape in the other. Anyone with photoshop is free to analyze them to their heart's content. I recommend setting the top layer's blending mode to "difference" to have the different cannonballs come out in rather sharp relief. Also, if you simply make the cannonballs ON layer visible then invisible frequently and repeatedly it looks rather apparent to my eyes that there are a far greater number of cannonballs in the cannonballs ON photo. If the cannonballs were added after the fact, then they were lugged from off frame.
posted by shmegegge at 12:51 PM on September 27, 2007

Question to the editor: Why exactly should I care about this?

I don't know who you're directing this to. Personally, what interests me is the investigation of why we arrive at conclusions (particularly based on evidence we view as being a direct representation of reality) and how often essentially emotional and psychological reasoning is presented as unencumbered logic. The central question - did the photographer physically manipulate this scene or not - is of no importance to me. But the question of how we arrive at conclusions seems pretty central to me, and this open-ended example provided for me a pretty interesting forum to investigate some of the issues around it. Personally I think society in general could profitably spend a lot more time thinking about and discussing how conclusions are reached.
posted by nanojath at 1:16 PM on September 27, 2007

From the NYT Article:

Here are the facts as expressed in the letter:

3) The two photographs were taken between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.. They arrived “about 3 p.m.” and stayed “about an hour & a half.”

So according to the letter, the photographs were taken in the afternoon, right? Toggle between the two pictures and pay close attention to the collection of 3 or 4 cannonballs in the ditch nearest the camera that are in both pictures. In the ON picture the sun is casting less shadow on the camera side of the balls than in the OFF picture. This seems to indicate that the sun was higher in the sky in the ON picture, and since the photographs were presumably taken in the afternoon, then this would indicate the ON picture was taken first (earlier in the afternoon). Of course, if the letter is wrong and the photos were taken in the morning, then the opposite would be the case. Or if one picture was taken in the morning and one in the afternoon...well, then we'd have no idea.

Assuming the authenticity of the letter and considering the greater likelihood of cannonballs removed vs. cannonballs placed (as pointed out by many here), I vote for ON first, then OFF.
posted by ChestnutMonkey at 3:29 PM on September 27, 2007

So. One was either first, or it was second. And there are arguments for either. And people disagree.

You know, we can encounter this kind of dilemma for so many more interesting (to me) topics, that it's hard to get worked up about the minutiae of what some documentarian thinks about what some author wrote about what some photographer may have done a hundred and sixty years ago that doesn't seem to really matter about anything, anyway. I mean, so what if it was one way or the other?

Sorry. I read the article, but it just seems like a lot of wankery, to me. I respect that others have different views on pictures of cannonballs, though.
posted by darkstar at 4:09 PM on September 27, 2007

If he was going to "fake" the photo, why let anyone see the "real" photo? If only one photo were available its authenticity probably wouldn't be in question.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:05 PM on September 27, 2007

Well, that's a really good question. One of the things that Sontag et al are doing is casting aspersions on his motives, his character, based in no small part on a photo they've decided was 'staged.' It's interesting that's where Morris starts. Makes me that much more curious to see the new film.
posted by lodurr at 6:27 PM on September 27, 2007

I've been staring at this thing way too long. What really started to make me realize that I might be about to lose it was when I started shouting at the rock that's in ON (bottom left) that's not in OFF: WHAT ARE YOU DOING THERE ROCK? WHY AREN'T YOU IN THE OTHER ONE? WHY WOULD ANYONE FUCKING MOVE A ROCK?

I really need to go lie down and sob... quietly.

Yeah... by now I've realized that they were probably moved by cannonball fire, which indicates that whatever the case may be, there was active cannonball fire going on while Fenton was there. Which seriously undermines the coward argument.
posted by Kattullus at 7:27 PM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

It is a good question. What is reality in the age of Photoshop and spin doctors?
posted by SPrintF at 7:38 PM on September 27, 2007

Katullus (et al), the following might shed some light on a couple of questions regarding "ON": "For several years [James Fenimore] Cooper was daily in the society of artillery, and he ought to have noticed that when a cannon-ball strikes the ground it either buries itself or skips a hundred feet or so; skips again a hundred feet or so–and so on, till finally it gets tired and rolls." [Mark Twain, "The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper"]

Regarding your rock: The cannonballs do strike, and even if they haven't exploded, they might have sufficient force to knock a rock up onto the roadbed.

Regarding why your rock isn't there in the "OFF" shot: Well, it would probably get in the way of the wagons. Sorry, now you're going to go look for it in the pictures, aren't you....

Regarding why the road isn't scarred: By the time they get up on the road, they're either just rolling or don't have enough of a moment to damage the harder road surface.
posted by lodurr at 10:27 AM on September 28, 2007

Regarding why your rock isn't there in the "OFF" shot: Well, it would probably get in the way of the wagons. Sorry, now you're going to go look for it in the pictures, aren't you....

You cruel, cruel man, lodurr...
posted by Kattullus at 1:34 PM on September 28, 2007

It is the question of the nature of what is "obvious" that I find most interesting -- where does "obviousness" come from?
posted by rleamon at 3:06 PM on September 28, 2007

Here's the promised follow-up from Morris, on his trip to the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:40 AM on October 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

And, for the record, here's the third and final part.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:50 AM on October 24, 2007

« Older Protection racket   |   "Tiny shrunken heads peering down." Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments