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Collection Fenton Crimean War Photographs

About this Collection

Roger Fenton's Crimean War photographs represent one of the earliest systematic attempts to document a war through the medium of photography. Fenton, who spent fewer than four months in the Crimea (March 8 to June 26, 1855), produced 360 photographs under extremely trying conditions. While these photographs present a substantial documentary record of the participants and the landscape of the war, there are no actual combat scenes, nor are there any scenes of the devastating effects of war.

The Library of Congress purchased 263 of Fenton's salted paper and albumen prints from his grandniece Frances M. Fenton in 1944, including his most well-known photograph, "Valley of the Shadow of Death." This set of unmounted photographs may be unique in that it appears to reflect an arrangement imposed by Fenton, or the publisher, Thomas Agnew & Sons, and yet is a set of prints that was not issued on the standard mounts sold by the publisher. It is possible that this collection is comprised of a set of prints kept and annotated by Fenton himself.

The Crimean War

The Crimean War (1853-1856) was fought primarily on the southern tip of the Crimea, a peninsula extending into the Black Sea, barely connected to Ukraine. It was the location of Russia's great naval base at Sevastopol, the destruction of which was the primary objective of Great Britain and France. In addition, Great Britain and France maintained a naval presence in the Baltic Sea, which forced Russia to divert troops from the Crimea for the defense of St. Petersburg.

There is no simple explanation for the cause of the Crimean War. The motives and ambitions of a few individuals drew Russia into conflict with several nations, cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of men, and reshaped the political structure of Europe for the next fifty years. Russia and Turkey became embroiled in a dispute over the Orthodox Church in the Ottoman Empire after Turkey granted concessions to France that appeared to infringe on the rights of Russia as the protector of the Orthodox Christians. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, perceiving the Ottoman Empire to be in its twilight, also harbored ambitions to extend Russian territorial boundaries towards the Mediterranean through the annexation of Ottoman territory. Contributing to the belligerency of both Russia and Turkey was the international support that each nation presumed it could rely on.

Concerns about the shift in the balance of power in Europe and the overt motives of the tsar brought Great Britain, France, Austria, and even Sardinia into the conflict. Of particular interest to Great Britain was the maintenance of open trade or access routes to India and the East which meant preventing Russian expansion to the Mediterranean Sea. One could easily suggest that the Crimean War resulted from many misplayed hands due to poor decisions based on shifting allegiances and insufficient understanding of the different motives of each nation.

For some of the combatants, the commitment to the ideals of honor and glory outweighed their preparation for the realities of war. By 1854 the British army had experienced close to forty years of relative peace. Consequently, there were few battle-hardened veterans among the British forces in the Crimea. During this time, drastic measures were taken to reduce the cost of supporting a standing army. Most of the British army's commanding officers last saw action during the Napoleonic Wars, in particular, at Waterloo (1815), or had since purchased their commissions. Some British units, at their commanding officers' expense, adopted flashy, brightly colored uniforms. The officers of these units seemed to enjoy the pomp-and-circumstance of the parade-ground more than they understood the mechanics of war. The troops were, nonetheless, highly disciplined units. Overall, the successful battlefield tactics of the Napoleonic Wars were still the focus of the soldier's training. While the technology of weaponry was improving, the standard conduct of war was slow to evolve. Recent engagements involving the British in India, Afghanistan, and South Africa and the French in Algeria had done little to alter the typical battle plan, although the French were better prepared as a result of their campaigns in North Africa.

As the war got underway in the Crimea, the Times war correspondent, William Howard Russell, sent home dispatches about the glorious victory at the Battle of the Alma (Sept. 20, 1854). However, the combined allied forces, comprised mainly of French, British, and Turkish troops, were unable to completely subdue a strategically positioned, albeit archaic, Russian army. To the dismay of some, the invading armies failed to immediately pursue the retreating Russian forces. It quickly became evident that the failure to achieve the anticipated swift conclusion to the fighting in the Crimea was not for lack of bravery. Rather, mismanagement and disease, chiefly among the British forces, and to some extent the French, prevented the swift prosecution of the war. Casualties in the aftermath of Alma were due more to disease and the treatment of wounds than to mortal wounds suffered during combat. And soon Russell's reports were tempered with criticism.

British Coverage of the War and Thomas Agnew's Enterprise

As the landscape of war shifted from engagements on open battlefields to the entrenchment of the siege of Sevastopol (Oct. 1854-Sept. 1855), war correspondent William Howard Russell began a relentless attack on the official conduct of the war. His accounts of the difficulties of the soldier's life in Balaklava struck a responsive chord with readers on the home front. Thomas Agnew, of the publishing house Thomas Agnew & Sons, sensed a commercial opportunity. He proposed sending a photographer to the Crimea to provide evidence that would mitigate the negative reports appearing in the newspapers. Thomas Agnew's proposal was strictly a private, commercial venture that needed only the sanction of the government to allow it to proceed.

The British government made several official attempts to document the progress of the war through the relatively new medium of photography. In March of 1854 an amateur photographer, Gilbert Elliott, photographed views of the fortresses guarding Wingo Sound in the Baltic Sea from aboard the Hecla, the same ship that was to carry Fenton to the Crimea eleven months later. Elliott's photographs, though praised for their clarity in contemporary accounts, apparently have not survived. A more substantial effort to photograph the war, lasting from June to November 1854, came to a tragic end. Richard Nicklin, a civilian photographer, was lost at sea, along with his assistants, photographs, and equipment, when their ship sank during the hurricane that stuck the harbor at Balaklava on Nov. 14, 1854. In the spring of 1855, contemporary to Fenton's time in the Crimea, another government-sponsored attempt was made. Two military officers, ensigns Brandon and Dawson, were hastily trained by London photographer J.E. Mayall, after which they were sent to the

Roger Fenton's Background

Roger Fenton was born in 1819 into a family of comfortable means. Large landholdings, a banking enterprise, and other commercial ventures allowed Fenton the freedom to pursue his own personal interests.

There is much conjecture about how and where Fenton spent his time in the early 1840s. Around 1840 he began to study painting in the studio of Charles Lucy, a member of the Royal Academy in London. It is generally accepted that from 1841 to 1843 or 1844 he was in Paris and may have studied painting at the studio of Paul Delaroche. He apparently made frequent trips between London and Paris between 1843 and 1847, during which time he married Grace Maynard (1843). Perhaps in response to the additional responsibilities of beginning a family, or possibly realizing that he lacked the necessary skills to become a successful painter, Fenton completed his studies for a career in law and began practice as a solicitor (ca. 1851).

One reason frequently given for the likelihood that Fenton studied at the studio of Delaroche is that three of France's foremost early photographers may have emerged from that studio. It has been suggested that Fenton was introduced to photography either as an art form itself, or as an aid to art, by Delaroche. Possibly as early as 1847, though more likely around 1851, Fenton appears to have begun experimenting with photography while continuing to paint. Between 1849 and 1851 he had three "genre" paintings accepted by the Royal Academy, without any particular distinction. This may have led him to make the final break with painting in 1851.

In 1852 Fenton journeyed to Russia to take photographs for civil engineer Charles Vignoles, documenting the construction of a suspension bridge over the Dnieper River in Kiev in Ukraine. While in Russia, Fenton photographed buildings and views in Kiev, St. Petersburg and Moscow. He used the waxed-paper negative process of Gustave Le Gray.

Early in 1854 Fenton began to photograph the British Royal family, making frequent visits to various Royal residences, taking portraits as well as tableaux vivants (living pictures staged by Royal family members of works of art). Later that year he entered into an agreement with the British Museum to photograph art and artifacts from its collections.

Fenton's Crimean War Photography

William Agnew, of the publishing firm Thomas Agnew & Sons, must have proposed Fenton as the photographer for a commercial publishing venture to the Crimea sometime before a hurricane claimed the life of the official government photographer in the Crimea in November 1854, for during the fall of that year Fenton purchased a former wine merchant's van and converted it to a mobile darkroom. He hired an assistant, and traveled the English countryside testing the suitability of the van. In February 1855 Fenton set sail for the Crimea aboard the Hecla, traveling under royal patronage and with the assistance of the British government.

While Fenton was in the Crimea he had ample opportunity to photograph the horrors of war. He had several friends and acquaintances, including his brother-in-law, Edmund Maynard, who were casualties of combat. But Fenton shied away from views that would have portrayed the war in a negative (or realistic) light for several reasons, among them, the limitations of photographic techniques available at the time (Fenton was actually using state-of-the-art processes, but lengthy exposure time prohibited scenes of action); inhospitable environmental conditions (extreme heat during the spring and summer months Fenton was in the Crimea); and political and commercial concerns (he had the support of the Royal family and the British government, and the financial backing of a publisher who hoped to issue sets of photos for sale).

Whether there was an explicit directive from the British government to refrain from photographing views that could be deemed detrimental to the government's management of the war effort, perhaps in exchange for permission to travel and photograph in the war zone, or whether there was merely an implicit understanding between the government, the publisher, and the photographer is not known. Fenton photographed the leading figures of the allied armies, documented the care and quality of camp life of the British soldiers, as well as scenes in and around Balaklava, and on the plateau before Sevastopol, but refrained from images of combat or its aftermath. This tactic may have given him access to information and views that were otherwise off-limits to artists and war correspondents, like William Howard Russell, who were critical of the British government's leadership and military officers' handling of the war. In any case, while personally witnessing the horror of war, Fenton chose not to portray it.

Fenton made plans to photograph Sevastopol following the June 18th assault on the Malakoff and the Redan, the Russian's primary defense works before the city. When the assault failed, he decided it was time to return to England. He sold the van, packed up his equipment, and by June 26th, ill with cholera, sailed out of the harbor at Balaklava. Fenton was, therefore, not present for the fall of Sevastopol (Sept. 9th) nor its subsequent destruction, which was recorded photographically by James Robertson.1 While Russia retained control of the Crimea, the Allied armies achieved their primary objective, the destruction of Russian naval power in the Black Sea.

Fenton's Crimean War photographs offer a wonderful record of a moment in time. They are documentary in the sense that they constitute a reality in a way only intimated by painting or wood engraving. They might also be considered the first instance of the use of photography for the purposes of propaganda, although they do not seem to have been exploited to this end. Clearly they were intended to present a particular view of the British government's conduct of the war. However, by the time they were exhibited Sevastopol had fallen and the tide of war had turned.

After the Crimean War--Fenton and His Photographs

The commercial venture that precipitated Fenton's photographic assignment did not prove as lucrative as hoped. Sets of photographs went on sale in November of 1855, two months after the fall of Sevastopol. By December of 1856, the publisher, Thomas Agnew & Sons, disposed of their entire holdings of unsold sets, prints, and negatives at auction. The vivid, though understated, reality of war presented in the photographs may have led to a negative reaction by the viewing public, which ignored the aesthetic and technical qualities inherent in the photographs. When the Crimean War ended, so did the interest in its photographic documentation.

On September 20th, 1855, an exhibit of 312 of Fenton's photographs opened at the Water Colour Society's Pall Mall East establishment in London. Thomas Agnew & Sons, Fenton's publishers, issued 337 photographs on published mounts, individually or as parts of sets, between November 1855 and April 5, 1856. A "complete work," consisting of 160 of the photographs, was issued under the title Photographs taken under the patronage of Her Majesty the Queen in the Crimea by Roger Fenton, Esq. Another 159 photographs were issued in folios under the following titles: Historical Portrait Gallery (30 photographs); Views of the Camp, scenery, etc. (50 photographs); and Incidents from Camp Life (60 photographs). Two sets of panoramas were issued, The Photographic panorama of the plateau of Sebastopol (11 photographs) and Photographic panoramas of the plains of Balaklava and valley of Inkermann (8 photographs). These published sets do not account for all the photographs said to have been printed.

In 1862 Roger Fenton gave up photography for good, auctioning off all of his equipment. Roger Fenton died in 1869 after a brief illness. The family fortune was all but depleted, his artistic endeavors lost, and himself nearly forgotten as a leader in the development of photography in England.

Later, historians of photography frequently recognized Fenton's remarkable accomplishments (see, for example, the "Selected Bibliography"). During his brief 10 or 11-year career he did much to establish photography as an artistic endeavor. To his portraits, costume studies, landscapes, architectural views, and still life photographs he brought an aesthetic worthy of high art. Through his early training as a painter he was able to bring an artist's eye for composition to his photographs that set him apart from other English photographers working at that time.

1 Views by Robertson and other photographers can be found in: Roger Fenton, Photographer of the Crimean War: His Photographs and His Letters from the Crimea, with an Essay on His Life and Work by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim ( London : Secker & Warburg, 1954); Lawrence James, Crimea 1854-1856: The War with Russia from Contemporary Photographs (New York : Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, c1981); Paul Kerr, The Crimean War (London : Boxtree, 1997).

Prepared by: Woody Woodis, Cataloger.

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