British photographic history

Information and discussion on all aspects of British photographic history

I noticed this write-up for the Royal Collection Trust's exhibition of Roger Fenton's work on the following website:   

Published in contemporary newspaper reports, Fenton's photographs showed the impact of war to the general public for the first time.  Through his often subtle and poetic interpretations Fenton created the genre of war photography, showing his extraordinary genius in capturing the futility of war.

I may be wrong, but, as far as I am aware, Fenton's photographs were not published in contemporary newspapers because the technology was not available in the 1850s. Perhaps the RCT meant engravings of his photographs. I am not sure how many of Fenton’s photographs were reproduced in newspapers as engravings, but perhaps some reader will be able to answer that question.

I also believe that Fenton did not intend to or indeed capture the futility of war in his images taken in the Crimea. To my mind, the closest he came to showing the downside of war was photographing the graves in the Cathcart's Hill Cemetery (left). 

Fenton's iconic The Valley of the Shadow of War is indeed an emotive image of war, but is it anti-war? Fenton himself dressed in a Zouave's uniform (see above) and carried a rifle for a portrait in his hut at Balaklava, which was probably taken by his assistant Marcus Sparling. Was that the action of a man who was subtly and poetically trying to capture the futility of war?

I trust that this will stimulate some discussion..

David R Jones

Views: 214

Add a Comment

You need to be a member of British photographic history to add comments!

Join British photographic history

Comment by David Robert Jones on February 17, 2019 at 12:05

Thank you Peter for joining the BPH blog to deliver your comments, which are in general agreement to my own, and for the other information contained in The Art Journal of 1855. However, I must point out that 'The Valley of the Shadow of Death' was not a battlefield as such, but a shallow valley where a large number of spent Russian cannonballs that had overshot their target (which was Chapman's Battery on the British Left Attack before Sevastopol), had collected.  Fenton and Sparling knew of this valley with the track along its length that had round shot in its gutters. This formed their first picture. There is published evidence which strongly suggests that they then re-arranged the round shot randomly on the track to create a more powerful image.

I am hoping that we shall hear the other side of the argument from someone at the Royal Collection Trust who will explain why it is believed that Fenton's work in the Crimea shows the futility of war.

Comment by Peter Hill on February 16, 2019 at 21:56

Reading your post, Roger, prompted me to join this blog. I agree with your view that Fenton did not intend to or indeed capture "the futility of war" in his images taken in the Crimea. For example, The Valley of the Shadow of War came about because he was late to arrive and there was nothing else on the battleground to photograph. I believe the description of his Crimea work attributed by the RCT is a modern concoction.

As luck would have have it, I have in my possession the bound The Art Journal of 1855. On page 285, there is an extensive article about Fenton's Crimea photographs, titled "Photographs From Sebastopol". Among other things, the article makes it clear his trip to the war was a purely commercial enterprise. Here is how the article commences:

"One of the most interesting series of photographs that has ever been executed, the property of Mr. Agnew, of Manchester, is now on exhibition in the room of the Old Water Colour Society, in Pall Mall, East. They are three hundred and sixty in number, the result of a visit by Mr. Fenton to the Crimea, commissioned by Mr. Agnew, and accompanied by three attendants and a photographic van. The enterprise is most spirited, and has cost Mr. Agnew some thousands of pounds, but it cannot be doubted but that it will yield a golden harvest."

The article goes on to discuss the photographic van and its equipment, the introductions afforded Fenton by Prince Albert, the officers he photographed, and, in a derisory manner, the Zouaves:

"Among the contributions from the French camp, we have groups of Zouaves in their costume, picturesque all but their useless nether clothing, which has always the appearance of falling from their persons. It is unseemly, and very much in the way."

As for the "futility of war", here are other excerpts:

"One of the most interesting results of this very arduous and really perilous enterprise is a series of views of the whole of the southern environs of Sebastopol, the centre of this tremendous sanguinary struggle. Every knoll and every hollow has its episode, and all are celebrated here; and these particular views of which we speak have been taken continuously, so that when joined they form a perfect panorama of the site of the encampment, and the sense of a struggle unexampled in the history of the battlefield."

"The sectional views taken in Balaklava convey an impressive idea of the dire confusion of shot, shell, guns, tumbrils, and all kinds of material, that has prevailed on the quays of that place; and in some of these views, so truly are the textures realised, and so well do the objects compose, that many of them would paint extremely well. A famous locale is Cathcart's Hill, the habitual resort of spectators when anything is going on. It is here brought home to us; and near it is a spot of melancholy interest in the cemetery, so faithfully detailed, that we stop to read the brief tribute to the memory of the brave. Portions of the inscriptions on the unpretending monuments of Colonel Seymour of the Guards, and Brigadier-General Goldie, are sufficiently legible..... There are none of the refinements of painting here; there is nothing of the beautiful, but the beautiful of reality."

The article ends as follows:

""The Valley of the Shadow of Death" is a most exquisite photograph; the ground is covered by Russian shot and fragments of shell, giving some idea of the tons of iron that have been projected from the walls of Sebastopol. We are placed occasionally within some of our batteries, especially those of the mortars, and are introduced to those who worked them. This series of photographs, on the whole, constitutes much of the most interesting and valuable memorial of the siege that could be given. Mr. Agnew has submitted the pictures to the Emperor of the French, who has expressed the greatest admiration of them. No verbal description can place before switch such palpable reality the persons who have figured in this memorable siege, or the localities which constitute the widespread theatre of operations."

In an earlier note of Fenton's return to England, The Art Journal at page 266 describes his Crimea photographs as "admirable". The article I discuss above uses the adjectives "interesting" and "exquisite". Nowhere is the sentiment purported to be conveyed by Fenton's work as described by the RCT.

© 2019   Created by Michael Pritchard.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service