Roger Fenton was a pioneer of photography, who produced some of the best photographs of his era and was the first official war photographer. David Clark looks at his life and work

Roger Fenton was a pioneer of photography, who produced some of the best photographs of his era and was the first official war photographer. David Clark looks at his life and work

Captain Dames of the royal Artillery leans against a wall in camp during the Crimean War, 1855 – ©Corbis

Roger Fenton?s career as a photographer lasted little more than ten years. Nevertheless, his achievements included founding the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society), covering the Crimean War as the first

official war photographer, and leading the drive to establish and develop photography as an artistic medium.

Photography was an expensive hobby in the mid-19th century and, like many ?gentleman photographers? of the period, Fenton came from a wealthy background. His father was a banker and the MP for Rochdale in Lancashire, and initially it seemed that Fenton would pursue a career as a solicitor. He studied law intermittently after attending university, but his real passion was art.

Fenton used an inheritance from his grandfather, a mill owner, to study painting in Paris and London in the 1840s. However, after seeing a number of photographs on display at the Great Exhibition in 1851 he turned his attention to photography. He was soon producing his own images, including London scenes and self-portraits, and held his first exhibition in 1852.

He was a passionate advocate of photography, and in 1853 Fenton became the founder and first secretary of the Photographic Society. His status as one of the leading photographers of his day was confirmed by his invitation to make several portraits of the royal family in 1854. That same year, he became the official photographer at the British Museum, where he photographed many of its artefacts.

The official declaration of the Crimean War also took place in 1854, which was a conflict between the British Empire and its allies and the Russian Empire. The war was unpopular and there were heavy casualties on both sides. Partly to counteract growing criticism of the war, Fenton was sent to the battle zone as the first official war photographer, under the patronage of Prince Albert. He undertook the journey on assignment for the publishing firm Thomas Agnew & Sons, which hoped to sell his photographs.

Fenton travelled to the Crimea, part of today?s Ukraine, in February 1855. He took a huge amount of equipment, including five cameras and 700 glass plates, plus numerous bottles of chemicals and his own food supply. It was all transported in his Photographic Van, a converted horse-drawn wine merchant?s van that functioned as a mobile darkroom (see picture page 32). He was accompanied by his servant and a photographic assistant, Marcus Sparling.

By this time Fenton was using the wet-collodian method, which required shorter exposure times than previous methods. It was also the first photographic process to produce a negative from which an unlimited number of prints could be made. The disadvantage was that the entire process, from coating glass plates with light-sensitive emulsion to exposing and developing the image, had to be done in the ten minutes or so before the emulsion dried.

It was therefore a very impractical process to be carried out in the field, particularly in the high temperatures Fenton was to experience in the Crimea. To make matters worse, his highly conspicuous van was occasionally fired on by the Russian troops.

He stayed in the war zone for nearly four months and during this time contracted cholera, broke several ribs and almost died from inhaling fumes from developing and fixing chemicals. Nevertheless, he made more than 350 large-format glass negatives of the conflict, including portraits of officers and battlefield images. The most famous of the latter photographs is titled ?Valley of the Shadow of Death? and showed a bleak battlefield road littered with recently fired cannonballs.

Fenton was limited in what he could portray in his images, partly because exposures lasted for 10-15secs so he could only photograph still or posed subjects. Content was also limited because he was obliged to present a positive view of the war. Nevertheless, his photographs provide a fascinating and unique documentary insight into the Crimean War and were arguably his greatest achievement.

Afterwards he returned to his familiar subjects, including portraits of the royal family and atmospheric studies of famous buildings and monuments around the UK. The contemporary attitude to his work at this time was summed up in an article on his photographs published in the Journal of the Photographic Society in May 1858 that stated: ?No one can touch Fenton in landscape: he seems to be to photography what Turner was to painting. There is such an artistic feeling about the whole of these pictures, the gradations of tint are so admirably given, that they cannot fail to strike the beholder as being something more than mere photographs.?

In 1858 Fenton made a number of studio portraits with an ?Orientalist? theme, which were followed by a series of beautiful still life studies in 1860. However, these images were among his final photographs.

In April 1860 Fenton?s only son died at the age of 15 months. In the same month, his assistant, Marcus Sparling, also died. These events, together with the abrupt end to the reliable income that resulted from the closure of the family mill, are thought to have prompted a decisive change of direction in Fenton?s life.

In 1862 he abandoned photography, resigned from the Photographic Society and sold all his equipment and negatives. He returned to his law practice before his death seven years later at the age of 50.

Although Fenton?s importance was not fully recognised in his lifetime, it?s now clear that his promotion of photography and his own significant body of work made him a key pioneer in the history of the medium.

Biography

  • 1819 Born on 20 March near Rochdale in Lancashire
  • 1838 Attends University College, London and afterwards begins to study law
  • Mid-1840s Studies painting in Paris, then later in London
  • 1851 Views photographs on show at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and decides to take up photography
  • 1852 Holds his first exhibition of photographs. He later photographs in Russia and these images become the first photographs of the country to be seen by the British public
  • 1853 Becomes the founder and first secretary of the Photographic Society, later the Royal Photographic Society
  • 1854 Begins work as the official photographer for the British Museum
  • 1855 Spends four months photographing the Crimean War
  • 1858 Makes a series of photographs on an ?Orientalist? theme, using models in his studio
  • 1860 Makes more than 40 large-scale still-life studies
  • 1862 Announces his retirement from photography and sells all his equipment and his negatives
  • 1869 Dies on 8 August 1869 after a brief illness

Recommended Resources

Books: All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton 1852-1860 by Gordon Baldwin is a comprehensive study of Fenton?s work, price £40. A new book, Roger Fenton-Julia Margaret Cameron: Early British Photographs from the Royal Collection will be published in July 2010.

Websites: Numerous sites offer biographical information on Fenton, including the Tate Britain website, www.tate.org.uk, and www.wikipedia.com, which also offers useful links to other sites. All 25 of Roger Fenton?s letters written during his assignment covering the Crimean War can be read on http://rogerfenton.dmu.ac.uk.