by Gerald Boerner


“His camera catches shadows: shadows of our passing, shadows of the dead. A mood of chilly paralysis creeps up on you. His camera traps gothic ruins and fragile flowers.”
— Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

“Fenton took 350 photographs of the Crimean War, his most important body of work. The Clark holds 25 other photographs by Fenton, including three from the Crimean expedition.”
Art Knowledge News

“Roger Fenton is the man who photographed The Valley of the Shadow of Death. One of the very first war photographs, taken in the Crimea in 1855, it has an awful stillness.”
— Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

“Victorian photography with its long exposure times could do no more than record the battlefield after history moved on. And so the Victorian war photographer is a ghost’s amanuensis.”
— Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

“Which order were the photographs taken? Can the photos be enhanced so that they have identical contrast with shadows indicating the time of day? Are there other clues in the photographs?”
Digital Photography Review Discussion Board

“When Fenton came back from the Crimea, the public had Tennyson’s words echoing in their heads. The valley Fenton photographed is not, in fact, the same place the Light Brigade charged. But the cannonballs littering the gully quote Tennyson’s urgent music: ‘to right of them,/ Cannon to left of them…’ ”
— Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

“Morris discounts Susan Sontag and others who say the photograph “ON” was clearly staged and was taken second to be taken. Morris proposes other theories including that the photograph “OFF” was taken second, after soldiers harvested the cannon balls from the road for later use.”
Digital Photography Review Discussion Board

“It is both a beautiful work of art and a document of the photographer’s process. It depicts the very traveling dark room in which Fenton likely developed the Crimean war photographs in our collection. In a way, it is the photographer turning the camera on himself.”
Art Knowledge News


Roger Fenton (1819 – 1869)

Roger_Fenton_self Roger Fenton was a pioneering British photographer, one of the first war photographers. Roger Fenton was born in Heywood, Lancashire. His grandfather was a wealthy cotton manufacturer and banker, his father a banker and Member of Parliament. Fenton was the fourth of seven children by his father’s first marriage. His father had 10 more children by his second wife.

In 1838 Fenton went to University College London where he graduated in 1840 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, having studied English, mathematics, literature, and logic. In 1841, he began to study law at University College, evidently sporadically as he did not qualify as a solicitor until 1847, in part because he had become interested in studying to be a painter. In Yorkshire in 1843 Fenton married Grace Elizabeth Maynard, presumably after his first sojourn in Paris (his passport was issued in 1842) where he may briefly have studied painting in the studio of Paul Delaroche.

Fenton_kremlin When he registered as a copyist in the Louvre in 1844 he named his teacher as being the history and portrait painter Michel Martin Drolling, who taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but Fenton’s name does not appear in the records of that school. By 1847 Fenton had returned to London where he continued to study painting now under the tutelage of the history painter Charles Lucy, who became his friend and with whom, starting in 1850, he served on the board of the North London School of Drawing and Modeling. In 1849, 1850, and 1851 he exhibited paintings in the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy.

Fenton visited the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in London in 1851 and was impressed by the photography on display there. He then visited Paris to learn the waxed paper calotype process, most likely from Gustave Le Gray, its inventor. By 1852 he had photographs exhibited in England, and travelled to Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg making calotypes there, and photographed views and architecture around Britain. His published call for the setting up of a photographic society was answered with its establishment in 1853; The Photographic Society, with Fenton as founder and first Secretary, later became the Royal Photographic Society under the patronage of Prince Albert.

Fenton's_wagon In 1855 Fenton went to the Crimean War on assignment for the publisher Thomas Agnew to photograph the troops, with a photographic assistant Marcus Sparling and a servant and a large van of equipment. Despite high temperatures, breaking several ribs, and suffering from cholera, he managed to make over 350 usable large format negatives. An exhibition of 312 prints was soon on show in London. Sales were not as good as expected, possibly because the war had ended. According to Susan Sontag, in her work Regarding the Pain of Others (ISBN 0-374-24858-3) (2003), Fenton was sent to the Crimean War as the first official war photographer at the insistence of Prince Albert.

The photographs produced were to be used to offset the general aversion of the British people to an unpopular war, and to counteract the antiwar reporting of The Times. The photographs were to be converted into woodblocks and published in the less critical Illustrated London News and published in book form and displayed in a gallery. Fenton avoided making pictures of dead, injured or mutilated soldiers.

Fenton_cannonballs_crimea Due to the size and cumbersome nature of his photographic equipment, Fenton was limited in his choice of motifs. And because of the not very photosensitive material of his time, he was only able to produce pictures of unmoving objects, mostly posed pictures. But he also photographed the landscape, including an area near to where the Light Brigade – made famous in Tennyson’s "Charge of the Light Brigade" – was ambushed, called The Valley of Death; however, Fenton’s photographs were taken in the similarly named The Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Fenton_balaklava Modern photographers consider this picture, taken while under fire, to be a seminal piece of war photography. Two pictures were taken of this area, one with several cannonballs on the road, the other with an empty road. Opinions differ concerning which one was taken first. Filmmaker Errol Morris wrote a series of essays canvassing the evidence. He concluded that the photo without the cannonballs was taken first, but he remained uncertain about who moved the balls onto the road in the second picture – were they deliberately placed on the road by Fenton to enhance the image, or were soldiers in the process of removing them for reuse?

Fenton_Seated 1 In 1858 Fenton made studio genre studies based on romantically imaginative ideas of Muslim life, such as Seated Odalisque, using friends and models who were not always convincing in their roles. Although well-known for his Crimean war photography, his photographic career lasted little more than a decade, and in 1862 he abandoned the profession entirely, selling his equipment and becoming almost forgotten by the time of his death seven years later. He was later formally recognised by art historians for his pioneering work and artistic endeavour.

In recognition of the importance of his photography, Fenton’s photos of the Crimean war were included in the LIFE collection, 100 Photos that Changed the World.

Fenton_crimea Roger Fenton photographed in Russia in the early 1850s using paper negatives and then distinguished himself by photographing the Crimean War with the wet plate process. It is, however, in his architectural and landscape work that he shows an increasing restlessness with conventional approaches to photography and seems to anticipate a modern inclination toward abstract design. Like Benjamin Brecknell Turner, Fenton found that moving away from a building, to show all of it, often leads to graphically uninteresting photographs. And so, like Turner, he often moved in close, to show some part, and devised ways to keep the viewer’s eye from wandering past the picture’s borders. In Salisbury, The King’s Gardens, Fenton placed the silhouetted central tree against the lighter ground of the cathedral, providing a bull’s eye that rivets the eye to the center of the picture.

Fenton_furness Fenton’s landscapes made during the period from 1855 to 1860 show an overwhelming interest in pattern and shape, his concerns moving beyond the picturesque toward the definition of a new genre of landscape. In The Long Walk, Windsor, he constructs the picture out of the inverted T shaped path and allows the trees and bushes to mass into dark swells, again keeping the eye centered and driving it far off into the distance. The familiar serpentine line of the picturesque is absent again in Fenton’s The Double Bridge on the Machno, transformed now into a corkscrew or vortex of motion drawing us into the center of the picture through repeated leaps of black and white first in the black pool reflecting white, jagged shapes, then up to the highlights and shadows to the right, across the silhouetted tree and down to the water and up, across and down again.


Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Roger Fenton that can be found at…

Also see…

Masters of Photography: Roger Fenton