Roger Fenton – the first war photographer

The run up to the 11th November seems as good a time as any to produce the first in an occasional series of essays on photographers. I’m starting with Roger Fenton who produced the first ever published photographs from a war zone. It seems all the more relevant after hearing earlier last week that South African war photographer, João Silva lost portions of both his legs after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan. The differences in the genre since Fenton embarked on his historic expedition to the Crimea 155 years ago, are, quite simply –  immense. I wonder what Fenton would say when you told him that he could take photographs without producing a negative and that it was all made up of ones and zeros!  The differences are starkly demonstrated when you hear that João continued to take photographs as he was treated by medics! Even if he wanted to, Fenton would not have been technically able to document his treatment.

Roger Fenton (1819-1869) was a pioneering figure in British and world photography. His brief career as a photographer lasted only 11 years (1851-62) yet he left a legacy that will forever be remembered.  As the first published war photographer, he produced the above instantly recognised photograph entitled ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’. The title referencing Psalm 23 and Tennyson’s poem of the  disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade. A common misconception is that the scene depicted is the actual location of  The Charge of the light brigade. It isn’t, as the fatal charge had taken place the previous year in 1854, prior to Fenton’s visit. This scene was a ravine around 2 miles from the British camps near to the Russia fortifications of Sevastapol and a popular ‘viewing’ area. With typical squaddie gallows humour, it had been christened “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”. Whilst he missed the charge,  Fenton didn’t miss the opportunity to photograph a group of soldiers and officers of the 13th Light Dragoons who survived it.

Fenton had been commissioned by a publisher Thomas Agnew, to produce a series of photographs of the war in the Crimea. These were to be reproduced and sold to the soldiers and their families as well as the public, either as photographic prints or wood cuts. Armed with letters of introduction, Fenton travelled as the official (government sponsored) war photographer. Furthermore he had the blessings of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. With Royal and governmental approval, Fenton had the run of the place to coin a phrase.  As you will see, this goes some way to explain his success, though he was clearly a driven and competent man.

Prior to his 3 months in Crimea (mid march 1855- mid June 1855), Fenton had already produced what are believed to be the first ever photographs of the Kremlin, Kiev and St.Petersburg on a trip in 1852. By the time he landed in the Crimea in March 1855, the previous four years as a photographer had been fruitful. He set up the first ever photography club, now known as The Royal Photographic Society and soon after his trip to Russia, he entered into an agreement with the British Museum to document paintings and artifacts from their archive. He was also highly sought after a portrait photographer, in part brought on his portraits of the Royal family and the aristocracy.

Being born into a wealthy family (his father was an MP, Banker and cotton mill owner), meant that he had all the opportunities you would expect as a son of the Empire. He studied at University College London graduating in 1840 as a Bachelor of Arts (1st class). He then enrolled to study law in 1841 combining his law studies with the study of painting. This meant that he finally qualified as a lawyer in 1847. He had defied expectations to join the family business , travelling instead to Paris (presumably during term breaks) to study painting under the tutelage of Paul Delaroche. It’s believed that it was here in Delaroche’s studio  that Fenton first saw the shimmering, mercury based  Daguerrotype images that were then at the very cutting edge of photographic technology.  Between 1849-51 Fenton exhibited paintings in the annual Royal Academy Summer show. Fenton then turned his back on that particular strand of artistic endeavour to concentrate on photography. His calotype photographs of Russia  taken the following year show that he was abreast of the latest technological advances and had clearly been studying the new art from.

It’s not clear if Fenton travelled to the Crimean Peninsula to help turn public opinion, which was against the war, or if it was purely an opportunity by the publisher Agnew to cash in on the new technology and reproductive possibilities of photography. Yes, it was most definitely a commercial venture in one sense but Agnew must have also seen the potential in Fenton and his ability to capture unique historical photographs. For his part, Fenton must have realised that it was possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity. As such, he would have been foolish not to embark on an all expenses trip knowing that in all likelihood, he could well have been the first ever artist to extensively document a war photographically and most importantly, survive. (See note *1)

One thing is clear, he was not to show dead or injured English soldiers or scenes that would have offended Victorian sensibilities. Whether or not he entered into a tacit agreement with the Government not to depict scenes that would turn public opinion against the war, is not clear. I’d hazard a guess that because of his upbringing and place in society, he probably didn’t want to rock the boat and was just glad of the opportunity. However the question of censorship and the thought that he was a propagandist is worthy of some thought.  (See Note *2)

With no editor to speak of, Fenton had to apply his own critical eye to the scenes he depicted. Hampered by the technical constraints of the early cameras, Fenton was forced to choose his scenes carefully which ensured that he actually produced a workable negative, from which a photographic (positive) print could be made. This meant that most of the photographs were posed and static scenes. Despite these technical limitations, breaking several ribs AND contracting cholera, Fenton along with  his assistant Marcus Sparling,  managed to produce 360 glass plate negatives.

Fenton’s assistant Marcus Sparling pictured on the day Fenton took his most famous photograph

As you can see from the above photograph, Fenton’s portable darkroom, a converted wine merchant’s wagon, would have been cramp, hot and fume filled. It served not just as a darkroom, storing 5 large cameras, 700 glass plates and barrels of chemicals. It also carried his personal supply of preserved meats, biscuits, wine, beer and horse fodder.

The wet-plate collodian method that Fenton used during this trip meant that his 10×8 glass plates had to be handpainted with a mixture of guncotton soaked in ether and alcohol (collodian). The plate was then washed with distilled water and silver nitrate to make it light sensitive. The treated plates then had to be exposed and developed when still wet for the optimum results. When he had been refining this technique in England, the damp weather meant he had 10 minutes to expose and develop a negative. Not so in the heat of the Crimea. He was battling flies, chemical fumes, drying streaks, dust spots and his illness to produce the photographs. I’m assuming that Sparling would have done an awful lot of the work, preparing the glass plates etc but Fenton would have still had to oversee it.

It’s a far cry from the digital era and the ‘dimroom’ that photographers now work in to produce their binary images. Having developed and printed my own work in a variety of different sized and equipped darkrooms, I  have nothing but admiration for Fenton and Sparling. To produce such a body of work in the heat, disease and extreme conditions of the Crimea was a remarkable achievement. Taking the conditions and work involved into consideration, I’d say a 50%+ strike rate is exceptional. To try to contextualise Fenton’s achievement, I know of some (pessimistic) film photographers that would be happy with one workable negative on a roll of 36.

Prior to him taking his most well known photograph, Fenton had spent several weeks photographing soldiers and officers, their camps, battlements and living conditions. Around the end of his trip he wrote of his dread at the sight of officers in their finest military regalia approaching his mobile darkroom, asking to have their ‘likeness’ taken. (Even though it was 20 years later, i can’t help but think of the supercilious attitude and clipped manner of Michael Caine’s portrayal of Lieutenant Bromhead in the film Zulu ).

This dread hints at a possible conflict within Fenton as to the nature of his commission and the mix of commercial and artistic. I dare say that the living and working conditions combined with his illness contributed to the possible internal conflict.

The photograph of Fenton’s assistant, Marcus Sparling, sitting at the reins of  the portable darkroom was taken by Fenton, at Sparling’s request, in the morning prior to them setting off to take ‘Shadow of the Valley of Death’. Perhaps Sparling thought that he wouldn’t return, as the area they were heading to was within range of a Russian battery. Indeed they had to move the camera position back 100 yds when they initially set up, as a  few stray Russian cannonballs landed very close to them. Fenton watched a cannonball land 50 or 60 yds in front of him, the impact of landing knocking it’s fuse out. The cannonball continued it’s thankfully now benign trajectory ending up at his feet! He wrote to his wife of the incident, telling her that he picked it up and hoped to give it to her as a present!

Fentons letters (published posthumously by his family) indicate that he only took two other photographs that day. The now iconic ‘The Shadow of The Valley of Death’ showing a road littered with cannonballs and another, depicting exactly the same view with the cannonballs moved off the road. The two photographs have recently been reappraised as to the accepted chronology of events, i.e. which one was taken first.
It should be noted that at the time it was common practice to “harvest” enemy cannonballs i.e. recycling them and firing them back. 

The question is…..did Fenton set up the photograph by placing the cannonballs on the road ? Or did he merely depict the scene as he found it? Creating what remains to this day an iconic war photograph.

The first of it’s kind.

It might seem like a minor detail but it does get right to the central premise of any photograph. Namely the verisimilitude of a photograph.

Obviously the viewing of any photograph or art work is subjective. But it is important to remember that it’s as much about what is not included in the photograph/artwork as that which is left in to be seen.

The framing, composition and content of any photograph/art work is crucial to it’s success. Judging from the research i have done for this essay (and without having read all of Fentons letters) i’d hazard a guess that Fenton knew he was on to a winner when he first saw this ravine.

This question of chronology has given rise to plenty of  questions and detailed analysis.

My own view is that that Fenton took the famous photograph first and the military escort with him then harvested the cannonballs leaving Fenton to then photograph the cleared road.  Harvesting was a commonplace practice on the battlefield. It made sense to recycle the unexploded cannonballs. This recycling, a detail of war I had never considered before, put me in mind of the Mujahideen/Taliban “harvesting” Russian/Coalition forces captured munitions to produce IEDs and roadside bombs.

It’s known that Fenton tried panoramic photographs to varying degrees of success when he was in the Crimea, so why wouldn’t these two photographs not be another experiment ? An idea to be tried? Fenton was breaking new ground by simply being there, so to my mind, it seems reasonable and understandable if he was merely producing a before and after scene.

The central issue of the truth of a photograph which is purporting to be a document of a scene/event remains key to this day. These days news photographs are allowed to have a minimum of post processing, exposure and saturation correction perhaps a crop but you cannot or do not remove that which is central to the story or event (if it hasn’t been cropped out).

On his return to England he was summoned by Queen Victoria to tell of his Crimean exploits. He also exhibited 310 of the photographs and various sets of the photographs went on sale in November 1855, though sales were not at the level anticipated by Agnew.  The war had finished after Sevastapol had fallen in September so by the time the photographs were available in sets, the level of public interest had fallen. Agnew eventually sold by auction all of the negatives, remaining unsold sets and prints the following year.

Fenton didn’t really do much more of note photographically. He continued with his portraiture and produced a series of staid staged ethnographical photographs but it would appear that he had peaked during his fateful trip to the Crimea. Fenton ended up auctioning all his negatives and equipment in 1862 and died in 1869 after a brief illness.

Roger Fenton’s  contribution and place in the history of photography is assured.

His influence is all too evident when you look at the photograph below, taken by Belfast born Paul Seawright (now Professor of Photography at the University of Ulster) in Afghanistan in 2002.



The were already two photographers documenting the war. Described as “an amateur”  Gilbert Elliott’s photographs have not survived for a critical analysis. Nor did “civilian” Richard Nicklin, his assistants or his work which was lost when Balaklava harbour was struck by a hurricane sinking his ship in Nov 1854. Two British officers, Ensigns Brandon and Dawson were hastily trained in London and dispatched around the same time as Fenton in March 1855, to make their own photographic record of the war. Whilst they were apparently of sufficient technical quality, after lingering in official military files for a number of years, they too have disappeared leaving us only with Fenton’s documentation of the Crimean war.

Note *2

The first published depiction of war casualties wasn’t to happen for another 8 years with ‘Home of a rebel sharpshooter’ by Alexander Gardener a photograph not without it’s own controversy. The staging of such a photograph is the first recorded instance. By moving a dead confederate soldier Gardener undermines the premise of truth.  As an interesting side note, both Fenton and Gardener attended the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. This appears to have spurred them both on to explore the possibilities of photography because of a number of exhibited photographs contained within. Who’d have thought that an exhibition of innovation, a celebration of scientific and artistic achievements

The letters of Fenton

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