At Large  June 29, 2022  Caterina Bellinetti

Roger Fenton & His Pioneering Crimean War Photography

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Fenton Crimean War Photographs.

Roger Fenton, View of Balaklava from the top of Guard's Hill. Ukraine Crimea, 1855.

Born in 1819 to a wealthy English family, Roger Fenton trained as a lawyer and a painter before becoming one of the most influential photographers of the modern era. During his photographic career, Fenton founded the Royal Photographic Society, was appointed the first official photographer of the British Museum, and he photographed the Royal family in various residences. Yet, his worldwide fame and recognition as the first war photoreporter comes from the images he took during the Crimean War (1853-1856).

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Fenton Crimean War Photographs.

Roger Fenton, Council of War held at Lord Raglan's Head Quarters, the morning of the successful attack on the Mamelon portraits of Lord Raglan, Maréchal Pélissier, & Omar Pacha. Ukraine Crimea, 1855.

The Crimean War, fought primarily on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea, originated from the conflicting ambitions of the Russian and the Ottoman Empires. The causes of the war were numerous and longstanding. The Ottoman Empire had been declining since the 1820s and its vulnerability was seen as an opportunity by the Russians to expand territory towards the Mediterranean. Worried that the tension between the two empires would have brought Russian expansion into Europe, France and Britain backed the Ottomans. The war officially began on October 4, 1853, when the Ottoman Empire attacked the Russians in the Danubian region.

The British public was hungry for news of the war and its development. The most famous reportages were written by William Howard Russell, an Irish reporter for The Times, famous for his ability to vividly write about the war. His articles described the difficulties encountered by the British troops and the staggering number of casualties caused by diseases and inadequate medical practices. He also criticized their poor military management.

The British government wanted to counterbalance the negative narrative and decided that the new photographic medium could be of assistance. After a few failed attempts to send a photographer over to Crimea, Roger Fenton was suggested by the publishing firm Thomas Agnew & Sons.

Under royal patronage and government assistance, Fenton sailed to Crimea in February 1855, armed with a wine merchant cart transformed into a darkroom.

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Fenton Crimean War Photographs.

Rodger Fenton, The Artist's Van. Ukraine Crimea, 1855.

Fenton’s photographs do not show the horrors of war: there are no dead or mutilated bodies, no medical inadequacies, no violent battle scenes. This (perhaps surprising) absence of war came about as the result of two main factors. First, the photographic techniques available to Fenton were still tied to long exposure times—more than twenty seconds—and bulky equipment. Thus it was impossible for him to shoot an ongoing battle. Second, supported by the Royal family and the government, Fenton was constrained by politics and concerns about future commercial success.

In Crimea, Fenton created more than 350 negatives and his work is regarded as the first systematic coverage of a conflict. Most of his subjects were officials and soldiers of the French and British regiments. His few landscapes show the starkness of the Crimean peninsula, sometimes interrupted by the white tents of the military camps. The Valley of the Shadow of Death, taken on April 23, 1855, is arguably Fenton’s most famous photograph as well as the most iconic image of the Crimean War. The image is surprising in its bareness. A seemingly endless road that runs through wilted hills is scattered with cannonballs.

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Fenton Crimean War Photographs.

Rodger Fenton, The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Ukraine Crimea, 1855.

The body of work that Fenton created in Crimea was a faithful yet de-emphasized view of war. We know from an entry in his diary that he did witness the cruelty of war. Writing about the body of a dead Russian in his diary, Fenton noted: “the bare skull sticking up with still enough flesh left in the muscles to prevent it falling from the shoulders.” He chose to record these horrors and maybe this, along with the waning public interest in the war, were the reasons behind his poor commercial success. The publisher Agnew & Sons put on sale the photographs in November 1855 but, by December 1856, had already auctioned the unsold prints and negatives.

Rodger Fenton, Captain Cuninghame, 42nd Regiment. Ukraine Crimea, 1855.
Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Fenton Crimean War Photographs.

Rodger Fenton, Captain Cuninghame, 42nd Regiment. Ukraine Crimea, 1855.

Rodger Fenton, Group of the 47th Regiment, winter dress, ready for the trenches. Ukraine Crimea, 1855.  Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Fenton Crimean War Photographs.
Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Fenton Crimean War Photographs.

Rodger Fenton, Group of the 47th Regiment, winter dress, ready for the trenches. Ukraine Crimea, 1855.

On June 26, 1855, Fenton, ill with cholera and disillusioned by the war, left Crimea. Once back in Britain, he worked, mainly as a studio photographer, for a few more years. In 1862, he sold his equipment and returned to the legal profession. He died on August 8, 1869, at fifty years old.

The depiction of war has drastically changed since Crimea. There are no more wine carts transformed into darkrooms, no more white tents or scattered cannonballs on empty hills. Roger Fenton started a phenomenon that, since the Crimean War, has transformed the way in which we understand and study conflicts. Since then, we can know about war, not just through words, but through photographs. We can see it.

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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