Yale University Press, 290 pp., $65.00
The first war photographer, according to some versions, was Carol Popp de Szathmari, a Romanian amateur painter who photographed the Russian generals at the start of the Russo-Turkish War in Wallachia in 1854. He followed this with portraits and camp scenes from the Turkish occupation of Bucharest. Then, having equipped a carriage as a mobile darkroom, he pursued the war in the Danube basin, eventually assembling an album of two hundred photographs, which he exhibited in May 1855 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. At the same event, Roger Fenton won a silver medal for some landscape studies. But Fenton could not have seen de Szathmari’s exhibit in Paris. He himself was by then in the Crimea, completing what would become a five-month assignment.
He was an Englishman, a northerner, born in 1819 into a family of Manchester industrialists. He studied law before turning his attention to painting. He is believed to have trained for a short while in the Paris studio of Paul Delaroche—the man who, on first seeing a daguerreotype, famously exclaimed that “from today, painting is dead.” In 1844 he became a pupil of another French painter, a former student of David’s by the name of Michel-Martin Drolling. Fenton himself exhibited at the Royal Academy, but without great success, and none of his paintings has yet turned up. Success as a photographer came to him very quickly in the 1850s. He studied the art, again in Paris, with Gustave Le Gray (another former pupil of Delaroche). He made a trip to Russia, and took what appear to be the first photographs of that country.
He made a hit with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, key fans of the camera, and he photographed the intimate world of the royal family, in strikingly informal style. These were intended as private photographs, and much later the Queen objected to the publication of one of them, and asked for the negative to be destroyed. When Fenton went to the Crimea, he took with him a letter of introduction from Prince Albert, and it is asserted that he went under the patronage of Victoria and Albert, with assistance from the secretary of state for war. But his expedition was financed by a Manchester publisher, Thomas Agnew and Sons. It was a commercial venture, and it seems to me that its official character has been exaggerated.
In March 1854 Britain and France had declared war on Russia, in support of Turkey. Before they had even done so, the proposal had been made, in The Practical Mechanics’ Journal of January that year, that photography should be used “to obtain undeniably accurate representations of the realities of war and its contingent scenery, its struggles, its failures and its triumphs.” This was the first suggestion, in England, of its kind. It proposed that photographers be sent with naval and military expeditions, since
the dimly allusive information, which alone the conventional works of the painter can convey, is powerless in attempting to describe what …