When Alexander Wolcott patented the first camera in 1840, one of the first motifs to take off was war photography. Although capturing moving objects wasn’t really possible in the early days, photographers were still able to deliver images of the aftermath of battles to people around the world. As such, one of the earliest and most iconic war photographs was taken in 1855 after the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War.
The Crimean War was fought between October 1853 and March 1856 and featured France, Britain, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire on the Allied side versus Russia. All parties claimed that the war was fought to protect the favorite religious groups of the respective sides – Orthodox Christians on the Russian side, Catholics and Muslims on the Allied side – but in reality, the French and British Empires were really just worried about Russia moving in on lands that the declining Ottoman Empire was losing its grip on.
The most famous battle during the Crimean War was the 11 month Siege of Sevastopol, which ended in September 1855. Following the battle, British photographer Roger Fenton snapped the iconic photo titled, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”. Here it is:
While the above photo is undoubtedly more famous, another eerily similar photo was taken by Fenton at about the same time:
Clearly, the first photo shows cannonballs strewn across the road as well as the barren landscape, while the second photo shows a clear road. So which one came first?
Radiolab set out to determine whether the picture with the clear road came second, possibly after a cleanup crew came and scooped up the cannonballs to be recycled in future battles, or if the famous photo was set up by the photographer – to get his ‘likes’ up on Instagram, no doubt.
They brought in optical engineer Dennis Purcell, who after countless hours flipping the two pictures back and forth over and over determined that a handful of rocks on the left bank were lower in the photo with the cannonballs on the road. Since the rocks moved down the hill, it was determined that they had been moved down the hill by Fenton and his assistant who walked the bank gathering cannonballs to place across the road for a more chaotic shot of the aftermath.
To be fair, the photo with no cannonballs on the road still shows plenty of chaos and destruction with cannonballs littering the hillsides and a completely barren landscape. Regardless, Fenton captured – or created – one of the earliest war photographs and one that captured the chaos and destruction of the Siege of Sevastopol.