Understand death? Sure. That was when the monsters got you

July 1, 2013 § Leave a comment


An extraordinary fuss about eavesdropping started in the spring of 1844, when Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian exile in London, became convinced that the British government was opening his mail. Mazzini, a revolutionary who’d been thrown in jail in Genoa, imprisoned in Savona, sentenced to death in absentia, and arrested in Paris, was plotting the unification of the kingdoms of Italy and the founding of an Italian republic. He suspected that, in London, he’d been the victim of what he called “post-office espionage”: he believed that the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, had ordered his mail to be opened, at the request of the Austrian Ambassador, who, like many people, feared what Mazzini hoped—that an insurrection in Italy would spark a series of revolutions across Europe. Mazzini knew how to find out: he put poppy seeds, strands of hair, and grains of sand into envelopes, sealed the envelopes with wax, and sent them, by post, to himself. When the letters arrived—still sealed—they contained no poppy seeds, no hair, and no grains of sand. Mazzini then had his friend Thomas Duncombe, a Member of Parliament, submit a petition to the House of Commons. Duncombe wanted to know if Graham really had ordered the opening of Mazzini’s mail. Was the British government in the business of prying into people’s private correspondence? Graham said the answer to that question was a secret.

Questions raised this month about surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency have been met, so far, with much the same response that Duncombe got from Graham in 1844: the program is classified. (This, a secret secret, is known as a double secret.) Luckily, old secrets aren’t secret; old secrets are history. The Mazzini affair, as the historian David Vincent argued in “The Culture of Secrecy,” led to “the first modern attack on official secrecy.” It stirred a public uproar, and eventually the House of Commons appointed a Committee of Secrecy “to inquire into the State of the Law in respect of the Detaining and Opening of Letters at the General Post-office, and into the Mode under which the Authority given for such Detaining and Opening has been exercised.” In August of 1844, the committee issued a hundred-and-sixteen-page report on the goings on at the post office. Fascinating to historians, it must have bored Parliament silly. It includes a history of the delivery of the mail, back to the sixteenth century. (The committee members had “showed so much antiquarian research,” Lord John Russell remarked, that he was surprised they hadn’t gone all the way back to “the case of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who opened the letters which had been committed to his charge, and got Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put to death instead of himself.”)

The report revealed that Mazzini’s mail had indeed been opened and that there existed something called the Secret Department of the Post Office. Warrants had been issued for reading the mail of the king’s subjects for centuries. Before Mazzini and the poppy seeds, the practice was scarcely questioned. It was not, however, widespread. “The general average of Warrants issued during the present century, does not much exceed 8 a-year,” the investigation revealed. “This number would comprehend, on an average, the Letters of about 16 persons annually.” The Committee of Secrecy was relieved to report that rumors that the Secret Department of the Post Office had, at times, sent “entire mail-bags” to the Home Office were false: “None but separate Letters or Packets are ever sent.”

The entire episode was closely watched in the United States, where the New-York Tribune condemned the opening of Mazzini’s mail as “a barbarian breach of honor and decency.” After the Committee of Secrecy issued its report, Mazzini published an essay called “Letter-Opening at the Post-Office.” Two months after the Mazzini affair began, the Secret Department of the Post Office was abolished. What replaced it, in the long run, was even sneakier: better-kept secrets.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Derek Vincent


uire looks through his telescope at the infernal Horse, tho’ he has no need: it struts over us big as a clou

May 29, 2013 § Leave a comment


Lawrence Weschler (LW): Why don’t we start with the first chapter in your new book [Believing is Seeing], in many ways emblematic of all the rest, in which you spend over seventy pages interrogating two photographs taken by Roger Fenton in 1855 of a landscape after a battle in the Crimean War. Early on, you quote your friend Ron Rosenbaum: You mean to tell me that you went all the way to the Crimea because of one sentence written by Susan Sontag?

Errol Morris (EM): Well, actually it was two sentences. She began by claiming that many of the canonical images of early warfare photographs turn out to have been staged, or posed, whatever that might mean. And then she went on to offer, by way of example, the case of Roger Fenton, who “after reaching the much-shelled valley approaching Sebastopol… made two exposures from the same tripod position: in the first version of the celebrated photograph… the cannonballs are thick on the ground to the left of the road, but before taking the second picture—the one that is always reproduced—he oversaw the scattering of cannonballs on the road itself.”

LW: So what bothered you about that?

EM: What upsets me about a lot of writing about photography is that the writer just emotes. The photograph made me feel x, or y, or it made me feel z. Or the photographer must have intended x, y, or z. I have gotten into terrible trouble criticizing both Barthes and Sontag––the sacred cows of photographic theory—but what bothered me about those two sentences of Sontag’s is the suggestion that she knew what Fenton was thinking. I wondered, how does Sontag know that the photograph with the cannonballs on the road, which I will call “ON,” came after the one with the cannonballs off the road, which I will call “OFF”? How does she know that?

LW: And with such absolute authority.

EM: With any kind of authority. That annoyed me.

LW: The thing that’s quite striking to any reader of your book is that it didn’t just annoy you. You went positively ballistic. This question got your juices going all the way to the Crimea! Why?

EM: For a number of reasons. Let’s set ourselves a problem: How much can I learn from a photograph? For example, the issue of which came first, OFF or ON, ON or OFF. Can I establish this? Sontag’s pronouncement seemed to me almost ex cathedra. As if it is obvious. Maybe it is obvious, but it simply wasn’t obvious to me. And so the issue was, could I empirically determine the order of the photographs? I spoke with all sorts of experts, and presently decided that the key might be to go to Crimea the same time of year, find the exact location, and note the shadows at different times of the afternoon, earlier and later, on sample cannonballs I would bring along. As it turns out, my trip to the Crimea did not provide a solution. I find that funny. I mean, traipsing all the way around the world to some godforsaken place did not solve the problem. And the solution came unexpectedly.

LW: How so?

EM: From a friend in the Boston area, Dennis Purcell, who is very skillful at Adobe Photoshop. Essentially he created a flicker box upon which he was able to jump back and forth between OFF and ON.

LW: And the answer turned out not to rely on the cannonballs at all.

EM: Well, there’s the naive thought. The naive thought is that if you’re trying to learn something about the order of the photographs based on the presence or absence of cannonballs on the road, you should be studying the cannonballs. But that in fact turns out to be, I wouldn’t call it an error, but it did not turn out to be part of the solution.

LW: So he instead looks at?

EM: He looks at the rocks on the side of the road; he even gives them names: Fred, Oswald, Marmaduke, Lionel… The presumption of course being that whatever the order, the cannonballs had to be moved by someone. And that perhaps in moving the cannonballs, that person would have nudged adjacent rocks. And in fact you can see a pattern in the movement of the rocks down the slope that does determine the order of the photographs conclusively.

LW: And?

EM: Sontag was right.

LW: Damn.  read more

SCAN: Bollops

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