Roger Fenton was a British photographer, noted as one of the first war photographers. He was born into a Lancashire merchant family. After graduating from London with an Arts degree, Fenton became interested in painting and later developed a keen interest in the new technology of photography after seeing early examples at The Great Exhibition in 1851. Within a year, he began exhibiting his own photographs. He became a leading British photographer and instrumental in founding the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society
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 Roger Fenton to go to the Crimea to record the happenings. The London print publisher Thomas Agnew & Sons became his commercial sponsor. 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. He set off aboard HMS Hecla in February, landed at Balaklava on 8 March and remained there until 22 June. 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.
Despite summer high temperatures, breaking several ribs in a fall, suffering from cholera and also becoming depressed at the carnage he witnessed at Sevastopol, 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.
Despite the lack of commercial success for his Crimean photographs, Fenton later travelled widely over Britain to record landscapes and still life images. However, as time moved on, photography became more accessible to the general public. Many people 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.
Amongst Fenton's photographs from this period are the City of Westminster, including The Palace of Westminster nearing completion in 1857 – almost certainly the earliest images of the building, and the only photographs showing the incomplete Clock Tower.
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 returned to the law as a barrister. Although becoming almost forgotten by the time of his death seven years later he was later formally recognized by art historians for his pioneering work and artistic endeavour.
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.
He died 8 August 1869 at his home in Potters Bar, Middlesex after a week-long illness – he was 50 years old. His wife died in 1886. Their graves were destroyed in 1969 when the Potters Bar church where they were buried was deconsecrated and demolished.
Roger Fenton is a towering figure in the history of photography, the most celebrated and influential photographer in England during the medium’s “golden age” of the 1850s. Before taking up the camera, he studied law in London and painting in Paris. He traveled to Russia in 1852 and photographed the landmarks of Kiev and Moscow; founded the Photographic Society (later designated the Royal Photographic Society
) in 1853; was appointed the first official photographer of the British Museum
in 1854; achieved widespread recognition for his photographs of the Crimean War in 1855; and excelled throughout the decade as a photographer in all the medium’s genres—architecture, landscape, portraiture, still life, reportage, and tableau vivant.
Fenton’s most widespread acclaim came in 1855, with photographs of the Crimean War, a conflict in which British, French, Sardinian, and Turkish troops battled Russia’s attempt to expand its influence into European territory of the Ottoman empire. Fenton was commissioned by the Manchester publisher Thomas Agnew & Sons to travel to the Crimea and document the war, and his mission was encouraged by the government, which hoped that his photographs would reassure a worried public. Fenton’s extensive documentation of the war—the first such use of photography—included pictures of the port of Balaklava, the camps, the terrain of battle, and portraits of officers, soldiers, and support staff of the various allied armies.
Perhaps inspired by the experience of traveling through Constantinople en route to Balaklava, or perhaps simply sharing the mid-nineteenth-century vogue for all things exotic, Fenton produced a theatrical suite of Orientalist compositions during the summer of 1858—costume pieces that strove for high art rather than documentation and that were, in a sense, an antidote to the harsh realities he had recorded in the Crimea. They owed as much to the paintings of Delacroix and Ingres as to Fenton’s own experience in the East.
In 1862, after a final series of photographs—a remarkable group of lush still lifes—Fenton sold his equipment and negatives, resigned from the Royal Photographic Society
, and returned to the bar. In the course of a single decade, Fenton had played a pivotal role—by advocacy and example—in demonstrating that photography could rival drawing and painting not only as a means of conveying information, but also as a medium of visual delight and powerful expression.
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art