Roger Fenton  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Roger Fenton (20 March 1819 - 8 August 1869) was a pioneering British photographer, one of the first war photographers.

Crimean War

It is likely that in autumn 1854, as the Crimean War grabbed the attention of the British public, that some powerful friends and patrons - among them Prince Albert and Duke of Newcastle, secretary of state for war - urged Fenton to go the Crimea to record the happenings. He set off aboard HMS Hecla in February, landed at Balaclava on 8 March and remained there until 22 June. The resulting photographs may have been intended to offset the general unpopularity of the war among the British people, and to counteract the occasionally critical reporting of correspondent William Howard Russell of The Times. The photographs were to be converted into woodblocks and published in the less critical Illustrated London News. Fenton took Marcus Sparling as his photographic assistant, a servant known as William and a large horse-drawn van of equipment.

Due to the size and cumbersome nature of his photographic equipment, Fenton was limited in his choice of motifs. Because the photographic material of his time needed long exposures, he was only able to produce pictures of stationary objects, mostly posed pictures; he avoided making pictures of dead, injured or mutilated soldiers. But he also photographed the landscape, including an area near to where the Charge of the Light Brigade - made famous in Tennyson's poem - took place. In letters home soldiers had called the original valley "The Valley of Death", and Tennyson's poem used the same phrase, so when in September 1855 Thomas Agnew put the picture on show, as one of a series of eleven collectively titled Panorama of the Plateau of Sebastopol in Eleven Parts in a London exhibition, he took the troops'—and Tennyson's—epithet, expanded it as The Valley of the Shadow of Death with its deliberate evocation of Psalm 23, and assigned it to the piece; it is not the location of the famous charge, which took place in a long, broad valley several miles to the south-east.

In 2007 film-maker Errol Morris went to Sevastopol to identify the site of this "first iconic photograph of war". He identified the small valley, shown on a later map as "The Valley of the Shadow of Death", as the place where Fenton had taken his photograph (see right). Two pictures were taken of this area, one with several cannonballs on the road, the other with an empty road. Hitherto opinions differed concerning which one was taken first but Morris spotted evidence that the photo without the cannonballs was taken first. He remains uncertain about why balls were moved onto the road in the second picture—perhaps, he notes, Fenton probably deliberately placed them there to enhance the image. The alternative is that soldiers were gathering up cannonballs for reuse and they threw down balls higher up the hill onto the road and ditch for collection later. Other art historians, such as Nigel Spivey of Cambridge University, identify the images as from the nearby Woronzoff Road. This is the location accepted by the local tour guides.

Despite summer high temperatures, breaking several ribs in a fall, suffering from cholera and also becoming depressed at the carnage he witnessed at Sebastopol, in all Fenton managed to make over 350 usable large format negatives. An exhibition of 312 prints was soon on show in London and at various places across the nation in the months that followed. Fenton also showed them to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and also to Emperor Napoleon III in Paris. Nevertheless, sales were not as good as expected.

Post Crimea

Undaunted by the lack of commercial success for his Crimean photographs, Fenton remained driven with great energy to perfect his art and to record meaningful and artistic images. He travelled widely over Britain to record landscapes and still life images, but as time moved on, photography was becoming more accessible. Many, with sufficient knowledge and also the hunger to develop business, sought to profit from selling quick portraits to common people. It is likely that Fenton, from a wealthy background, disdained 'trade' photographers, but nevertheless still wanted to profit from the art by taking exclusive images and selling them at good prices. He thus fell into conflict with many of his peers who genuinely needed to make money from photography and were willing to 'cheapen their art' (as Fenton saw it), and also with the Photographic Society, who believed that no photographer should soil himself with the 'sin' of exploiting his talent commercially in any manner.

In 1862 the organizing committee for the International Exhibition in London announced its plans to place photography, not with the other fine arts as had been done in the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition only five years earlier, but in the section reserved for machinery, tools and instruments - photography was considered a craft, for tradesmen. For Fenton and many of his colleagues, this was conclusive proof of photography's diminished status, and the pioneers drifted away. In 1863, Fenton sold his equipment and returned to the law as a barrister on the Northern Circuit.

He died 8 August 1869 at his home in Potter's Bar, Hertfordshire after a week-long illness - he was only 50 yrs old. His wife died in 1886. Their graves were destroyed in 1969 when the Potter's Bar church where they were buried was deconsecrated and demolished.




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