National Media Museum blog

We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.

Photographing Conflict: Roger Fenton and the Crimean War

Today we remember those that died on the battlegrounds of World War I and II, and all members of the armed forces who have ever given their lives in the line of duty.

To honour this memorial, we’re publishing a two-part post, beginning with a look at the first systematic photographic coverage of a conflict, the Crimean War; its most famous photographer, Roger Fenton; the limitations he faced, and why he chose not to record the full horrors of war.

In part two, we’ll publish a selection of World War I photographs taken from two albums entitled Official Australian War Photographs, produced by the Australian War Records Section which was established by the British government in 1917.

The Mother of Creativity

It is a grotesque paradox that war, humankind’s most destructive activity, has also been the inspiration for some of its greatest moments of creativity. This paradox is reflected in both our personal and societal responses to conflict. War is ‘evil’, but it can also be ‘just'; sacrifice can be ‘worthless’, but it can also be ‘glorious’. War undoubtedly brings out the worst in humankind but it can also prompt episodes of extraordinary courage, compassion and self-sacrifice.

The response of every individual writer, artist, journalist or photographer to the challenges of war, while often mirroring that of society as a whole, is of course, also deeply personal and subjective. Changing technologies also play a crucial role, particularly within the realms of photography and cinematography, historically, mediating the images which photographers have aspired to create through the limitations dictated by the apparatus and processes of the time.

Changes in camera technology and photographic processes have profoundly influenced war photography – from the Crimean War to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Technological innovations such as shorter exposure times, portable cameras and improved lenses transformed the photography of conflict.

However, as well as purely technical considerations, one must also consider the critical contextual importance of personal, political, aesthetic and cultural factors in shaping the nature of war photography.

The Ordnance Wharf, Balaklava, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum
Piles of cannon balls on the quayside at Balaklava. Huge supplies of ammunition, or ordnance, were needed for the artillery at the seige of Sebastopol.

War is often regarded as ‘the mother of invention’. However, it may equally well be considered to be ‘the mother of creativity’. From Homer’s Iliad to Goya’s The Horrors of War or Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, our seemingly innate compulsion to destroy each other has been the source of inspiration for some of the greatest works of art. This is not surprising. No activity of humankind engages our emotions as totally as war. War places individuals and societies in the most extreme of situations and, consequently, provokes the most extreme responses – both good and bad. As an editorial in The Magazine of Art noted in 1897,

“The situations and emotions of history, of romance, and of actual life need idealizing; but the situations and the emotions of war, on the contrary, are so great, so dramatic, so strong – being matters of life and death – that they only need realization to be the highest objects of the highest art.”

The First Systematic Coverage of a Conflict – the Crimean War (1854-1856)

The invention of photography was publicly announced in 1839. From the outset, photography’s ability to capture the forms of nature with unparalleled precision and fidelity aroused enormous interest and debate. The absolute ‘truthfulness’ of and objectivity of the photographic image was widely regarded as its most important attribute.

The first war photographs – a few daguerreotypes – were taken during the United States war with Mexico (1846-1848) but the first systematic photographic coverage of a conflict occurred a few years later during the Crimean War (1854-1856). Even before war was declared, The Practical Mechanics Journal was urging that photography should be used

“to obtain undeniably accurate representations of the realities of war and its contingent scenery, its struggles, its failures and triumphs” and contrasting the accuracy of the photograph with “the dimly allusive information, which alone the conventional works of the painter can convey.”

A number of photographers subsequently worked in the Crimea. The most famous of these was undoubtedly Roger Fenton – a leading figure in British photography who was commissioned by a firm of publishers, Thomas Agnew and Son to create a photographic record of the war.

Roger Fenton and the Crimean War

Fenton was an exceptionally competent photographer, renowned for his technical skill. However, he was forced to operate under severe difficulties dictated by the hazards of war and the extremes of climate but also, significantly, by the limitations of his equipment and the process that he used.

Fenton used large format glass plate cameras and the collodion, or wet plate, process which required long exposure times – up to 20 seconds or more. Moreover, each plate had to be sensitised immediately before exposure and developed immediately after exposure, before the emulsion dried, necessitating the use of some form of mobile darkroom. In Fenton’s case this took the form of a converted wine merchant’s wagon which, unfortunately, also proved itself to be a very tempting target for Turkish artillery.

Roger Fenton’s photographic van, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum
Marcus Sparling, Fenton’s assistant, is the figure shown seated at the front of the van.

Given these circumstances, it would have been impossible for Fenton to have captured any scenes of actual fighting – even if he had wanted to do so. Indeed, it is remarkable that he was able to achieve what he did – over 300 photographs showing scenes of camp life, portraits of commanders and heroes, panoramas of sights of battles and carefully posed tableaux vivants – the beginnings of a long tradition of ‘staged’ war images.

A Quiet Day in the Mortar Battery, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum
A British mortar battery during the siege of Sebastapol.

A True War Photographer?

Fenton showed no scenes of actual death although his letters and diary reveal that he saw plenty of evidence of the horrors of war. On one occasion he came across the body of a dead Russian

“lying as if he had raised himself upon his elbow, the bare skull sticking up with still enough flesh left in the muscles to prevent it falling from the shoulders.”

Technically, there was no reason why Fenton could not have photographed this subject. However, the Crimean War was extremely unpopular with the British public and press, and the government hoped that Fenton’s photographs would counteract the negative reports of military mismanagement.

Taking into account the concerns of Fenton’s royal patrons, coupled with the need to create images that would have some commercial potential, it is hardly surprising that he chose not to record the full horror of war. It is because he only took ‘positive’ images of the war, that some critics do not consider Fenton to be a true war photographer.

“In coming to a ravine called the valley of death, the sight passed all imagination: round shot and shell lay like a stream at the bottom of the hollow all the way down, you could not walk without treading upon them…”

The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum

This is Fenton’s most famous photograph, and one of the most well-known images of war. Its title is taken from Psalm 23 of the Bible, which was also evoked in Tennyson’s famous poem The Charge of the Light Brigade; ‘The Valley of Death’ was named by British soldiers who came under constant shelling there. Absent of life, or lives lost, this desolate portrayal of the scene communicates the dismal aftermath, in which the emptiness acts as a symbol of the tragedy of war.

Cossack Bay, Balaklava, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum
A photograph of the busy port of Cossack Bay near Balaklava.

Encampment of 71st Regiment, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum
The 71st Highland Light Infantry took part in the siege of Sebastopol.

Balaklava from Guards Hill, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum
The crowded harbour at Balaklava. On the hill in the foreground are some of the tents of the allied camp. Balaklava sits beneath a fort, the harbour packed with sailing ships bringing supplies to the armies besieging Sebastopol.

Mortar Batteries in Front of Piquet House…, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum
British troops manning a mortar battery at the siege of Sebastopol.

Railway Sheds and Workshop, Balaklava, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum
A supply depot and railway at Balaklava harbour, a forest of ships’ masts. The railway and engineering sheds can be seen in the foreground. Civilian navvies built the first track and railway yard – in just seven weeks, seven miles of railway were laid.

Cavalry Camp, Balaklava, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum
Tents, men and horses fill the valley. The British Heavy and Light Cavalry Brigades both fought during the Crimean War. The Light Brigade, in particular, suffered many casualities at the Battle of Balaklava.

The French Redoubt at Inkermann, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum
British, French Turkish and Sardinian soldiers all fought in the Crimean War. These soldiers are probably North African or Zouave troops, noted for their exotic uniforms and baggy red trousers.

Two Sergeants of the 4th Light Dragoons, 1855, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum

Born into a wealthy family, Roger Fenton studied both law and painting before taking up photography. He was amongst the first Victorians to regard photography as a commercial venture and photographed landscapes, beauty spots and stately homes with a view to print sales. He was also keen to promote photography’s status as an art form and in 1853 was a founder member of The Photographic Society, which later became The Royal Photographic Society.

Fenton was one of Britain’s most important and accomplished photographers. He is remembered for a large number of remarkably diverse works, ranging from photographs of the Crimea War, to portraits of the Royal Family, collections of the British Museum, landscapes, architectural studies and a series of sumptuous still life compositions.

Still Life with Ivory Tankard and Fruit, c.1860, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum

Roger Fenton’s still life work goes on display next week when our new exhibition Art of Arrangement: Photography and the Still Life Tradition, opens to the public (17 November 2012 – 10 February 2013).

Prints of all of the images in this post are available from the Science and Society Picture Library, the official print sales website of the Science Museum Group.

About Colin Harding

I am Curator of Photographic Technology at the National Media Museum. As well as looking after the camera collection I have curated many special exhibitions over the years.

One comment on “Photographing Conflict: Roger Fenton and the Crimean War

  1. Pingback: Historical developments in documentary photography. | Judy Bach: Open College of the Arts Documentary Blog

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