He was the first photographer to capture the terrible effects of war when he went to the Crimea in 1855 – and his stark images remain powerful
Roger Fenton's groundbreaking war photography from 1855 goes on show in Edinburgh
Roger Fenton (1819-1869) is credited with being the first war photographer. That war was the Crimean War of 1853-56, a conflict described by the historian Eric Hobsbawm as “notoriously incompetent international butchery”.
It was a prolonged and pointless internecine war in which Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire allied against Russia in a bid to stem its territorial expansion. Lancashire-born Fenton, a founding member of what is today the Royal Photographic Society in London, spent more than three months in the region photographing the war for the eager and anxious British public back home.
An exhibition of Fenton’s pioneering war photographs has just opened in Edinburgh at The Queen’s Gallery. Shadows of War does not set out to give a history of the war, only one man’s interpretation of it. Through more than 60 photographs, acquired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, we witness the war’s brutality and futility and at the same time appreciate Fenton’s singular artistic talent.
Fenton was sent to the Crimea by publishers Thomas Agnew and Sons to produce photographs for the painter Thomas Barker, who would then use the images as source material and incorporate them into a large, grand oil painting encapsulating the war.
Fenton gathered his equipment and packed his “travelling darkroom” – that is, a converted wine merchant’s van – and departed for the Crimea on board HMS Hecla on February 20, 1855. The following month he disembarked at the British base at Balaklava and conveyed his first impressions in a letter to his patron, William Agnew: “Of all the villainous holes that I have ever been in, I think this is the worst.”
A cluster of Balaklava photographs are included at the exhibition. The Old Post Office, supposedly the first photograph Fenton took on his assignment, shows a building that has clearly been under attack and a group of men surveying the damage.
London viewers, used to pristine and smooth-running institutions, would be left to guess whether work had been suspended or it was business as usual. Other Balaklava images are less ambiguous and expertly capture the bustle and chaos of what was once a sleepy Russian port.
Fenton’s most iconic photograph from the war was Valley of the Shadow of Death. It also became his most controversial. We see a ravine littered with cannonballs; there are no soldiers, living or dead. We find ourselves lulled by the emptiness and pulled in by the perspective. A second, almost identical, photograph of the ravine exists but with fewer cannonballs, suggesting that Fenton rearranged one of the scenes. Sophie Gordon, the exhibition’s curator and head of photographs at the Royal Collection Trust, defends Fenton’s use of artistic licence.
“This isn’t particularly unusual for the time,” says Gordon. “In the 1850s, because of the length of exposure which would be a minimum of several seconds, all photographs are to a certain extent staged.”
Other topographical views are almost devoid of detail yet still have mesmerising power. Unlike standard mid-19th century landscape photographs which prioritised the picturesque, Fenton’s Sevastopol pictures are minimalist panoramas, presenting only barren, featureless plains. But the desolation is disquieting and atmospheric. It puts the viewer in the position of the allied soldier sighting the city – and the campaign’s final goal – in the far distance. While he is steadily advancing he is also mercilessly exposed.
Fenton’s photographs are as much about people as place. There are the obligatory portraits of august military commanders. Council of War was to be one of Fenton’s most popular photographs as it presents the three allied generals planning a crucial joint attack. But Fenton was not only interested in the main players. He turned his camera on a wide range of individuals of other nationalities whose lives were caught up in the conflict and whose existence was unfamiliar to viewers back home. We see Nubian servants and Tartar labourers; uniformed vivandières (the women who supplied French troops with food and drink) and Zouaves (Algerian soldiers who fought for the French).
The most striking portrait is Captain Lord Balgonie, not a smart and steely officer primed for battle but a haunted and dishevelled wreck with a wide-eyed stare.
“The eyes in war,” remarked veteran photojournalist Don McCullin, “tell you everything about human beings.”
This disturbing picture leaves a lasting impression. “It has been described as the first photographic depiction of shellshock,” Gordon explains. “It shows that Fenton was not trying to present a whitewashed view of the war.”
This is an important point. Fenton was once condemned for being an apologist for the war, for not revealing the harsh realities of injury, disease and death that British soldiers routinely faced.
This criticism is no longer valid. His photographs do not take us into the heat of battle for the precise reason that he was in the Crimea months before or after those main battles were fought and either lost (the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade) or won (the endgame-siege of Sevastopol). Instead of blood, guts and corpses, Fenton concentrated on creating images of the aftermath and effects of war, from bombed buildings and shattered soldiers to the ravaged land on which so many lives were lost.
Fenton’s stock-in-trade was not starkness but subtlety. One sequence includes a photograph of a view from Cathcart’s Hill of the British camp: a mass of pointy white tents dotted all the way to the horizon. The sequence ends with a shot of Cathcart’s Hill itself, on which stands a single figure contemplating a row of tombs.
Fenton’s photographs were functional but we should remember that he was a trained artist. Such photographs, Gordon argues, “employ aesthetic techniques that are designed to elicit an emotional response.”
The impact of Fenton’s photographs on the Victorian public was considerable. Many already had an awareness of the war through the likes of newspaper reports, memoirs, soldiers’ letters and Tennyson’s great poem of 1854 The Charge of the Light Brigade. But Fenton’s work provided a unique visual testimony.
When he returned, it was displayed at numerous venues across Britain and proved both a critical and popular success. One publication stated that by the end of March 1856, two million visitors had seen his photographs.
Another described the photographs as “a museum of fragments in miniature”. After a private viewing, Queen Victoria recorded in her journal that Fenton’s portraits and views were “extremely well done”.
Fenton was not the first photographer to set foot in the Crimea but he was the first to produce a substantial body of work. “I see and hear many things here which I should never know had I been placed in any official position,” he wrote to his wife.
By fulfilling a commercial commission rather than a government-sanctioned one, he was able to respond emotionally and without dictates and restrictions. The results are there to see.
Fenton has the distinction of being the first war photographer but also the misfortune of being too little known. This excellent and informative exhibition should help to change that and bring viewers up close to some powerful and poignant images of war.
Shadows of War: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea, 1855 is exhibited at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh until November 26. For more information see www.royalcollection.org.uk