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The Photograph Man

All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852–1860

Catalog of the exhibition by Gordon Baldwin, Malcolm Daniel, and Sarah Greenough
an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., October 17, 2004–January 2, 2005; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, February 1–April 24, 2005; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 24–August 21, 2005; and Tate Britain, London, September 21, 2005–January 2, 2006
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 occurs in such operations, whilst a photographic picture brings the thing itself before us. By its instrumentality the Commander-in-Chief can send home to his government dispatches of the most convincing accuracy.1

On March 11, when the Baltic Fleet left Spithead, Fenton was on hand to photograph its departure, but the suggestion of The Practical Mechanics’ Journal had already been taken up: an amateur photographer called Gilbert Elliott accompanied one of the ships, and took photographs of the fortress guarding Wingo Sound (off Denmark) so clear that “an engineer officer declared he could determine the bearing of every gun and correctly lay down a plan of attack.” The “instrumentality” of photography having been so quickly demonstrated, the army sent out a small photographic staff to the Crimea in June, but they and their work were lost when the transport ship Rip van Winkle sank in Balaclava Bay in a November hurricane. Replacements were sent at once, but their work in turn has since been destroyed.

Photography was a new art, then, when it was first seen as a potential art of war. It was a military tool of unprecedented accuracy, of service to the commander in chief (as it remains today), and it was expected to be capable of conveying the failures and triumphs of the campaign. For the latter purpose it was still an unwieldy instrument, as the Punch joke quoted by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim in their 1954 book on Fenton is intended to convey. A young lady writes to her fiancé in the Crimea:

I send you, dear Alfred, a complete photographic apparatus which will amuse you doubtlessly in your moments of leisure, and if you could send me home, dear, a good view of a nice battle, I should feel extremely obliged. P.S. If you could take the view, dear, just in the moment of victory, I should like it all the better.

How the Punch readers must have laughed at the inanity of the request, but times have changed very little, and a “good view of a nice battle,” preferably at the moment of victory, is what every picture editor is asking for. Unfortunately, battles do not generally offer good views. Instead what the photographer will look for is the great symbolic moment, the toppling of the statue, the raising of the flag. But there is nothing like this in Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean War, and it might be fair to the man’s memory to ask once again why not.

It is clear,” said the Gernsheims, “that, in order not to offend Victorian ideas of good taste, Fenton had to avoid portraying the ravages of war, and it is in this light that we have to view his entire opus of 360 photographs.”

Sarah Greenough, in the excellent catalog to the Fenton show currently in Washington, echoes this when she tells us that

while battle scenes were beyond the technical capabilities of photography at the time, he also never violated Victorian taste by photographing the battle’s aftermath, the dead bodies, or the chaos and clutter of the trenches, although he had plenty of opportunities to do so.

We might, though, pause at least to wonder what the evidence is for this version of Victorian taste. After all, it was in the late eighteenth century that the question was debated whether, in paintings and sculptures, military leaders should be depicted in antique or in contemporary dress. Benjamin West, with his Death of Wolfe, and Houdon, with his portrait of Washington, though they did not settle the question, at least pointed the way, and in the nineteenth century it became standard practice to depict actual battles, ferocious encounters, in gory detail. The regimental museums are full of this sort of thing.

So too were the magazines, with their engraved illustrations of military action, featuring the smoke of battle, the wounded and dead on the field, the horses twisting in agony. It may well be that there was a difference between the impact of an engraving of such a scene and a photograph, but that is quite another point. Greenough tells us that the purpose of Fenton’s trip was to provide a “commercially viable portfolio of photographs.” No doubt this is true. But Greenough goes on:

The portfolio’s high price—more than sixty pounds—makes clear that it was aimed at the upper levels of British society. This audience, many of whom had lost family and friends in the conflict, did not want to see photographs of death, suffering, chaos, and ineptitude, or images that would challenge their closely held belief in the necessity and correctness of the conflict. They wanted pictures to support the myth that their loved ones had died not ignominiously or in vain but with dignity, and in a noble cause.

The implication here seems to be that if the audience back home had seen photographs of the dead, they would have been disillusioned with the war. But the audience back home were receiving uncensored mail from the front, and they knew rather more about the “reality” of war than Greenough allows. William Howard Russell’s dispatches in the Times did not mince their words.

Anyway it is Greenough herself who tells us in a footnote that, in an address to the Photographic Society on his return, Fenton “acknowledged the omission of views of the aftermath of battle ‘so ably depicted by [James] Robertson’ after his departure.” To me this implies that there was no prohibition, no veto on the part of public taste and sense of decency. There were many things that Fenton did not do, did not get around to doing, in the course of his relatively brief stay in the Crimea, and I think it only honest to admit that at first one is liable to feel a pang of disappointment at the results of his work. These battlefield scenes are very empty, these distant views very distant, these portraits very posed. But then one thinks of Fenton’s situation and its limitations, and of his personality and its limitations, and one’s sense of the achievement grows rather than diminishes.

Although Fenton was not the first war photographer, he had quite probably never seen anyone else’s work in this genre, and was most certainly without illustrious precedents in mind. The modern war photographer goes into battle with a powerful sense of a prestigious history. His problem is not “What will my task consist of?” It is “How shall I distinguish myself from my rivals in the field?”

Fenton’s rivals in the field were not other photographers (he had one whisky-sodden assistant, the only professional colleague he encountered): they were the illustrators and artists, and it is clear from Fenton’s letters that he was alive to their shortcomings, in the way that rivals are. Here he is on the line-engraver Edward Goodall of the Illustrated London News:

His sketches which appear in the paper seem to astonish everyone from their total want of likeness to the reality, and it is not surprising that it should be so, since you will see from the [photographic] prints sent herewith that the scenes we have here are not bits of artistic effect which can be effectually rendered by a rough sketch, but wide stretches of open country covered with an infinity of detail.

And again:

The views here were not very good, as nobody being in front I could make no foreground, and the town [Sebastopol] is so far off that in itself it is no picture. All the sketches seen at home seem to err in making it much too near and in making the details too large in order to obtain distinctness.

In other words, the artists had this advantage over the photographer: they could do what they liked with their images, but he could in no way manipulate his. He was at the mercy of his lens, and of the long exposure time required for each shot. The soldiers who saw the results might express all the surprise they wished—the winning images belonged to the artists.

There were several different kinds of artist and illustrator around. A painting by one J.D. Luard called The Welcome Arrival gives us a kind of genre scene missing from Fenton’s photographs. It shows the interior of a hut in which three soldiers are grouped around a stove. One of them unpacks supplies of canned food and other goods from home (the “welcome arrival” of the title). The wall behind them is papered with cut-out illustrations from magazines, and these have been carefully recorded by the artist in all their variety, reminding us that photography was as yet very far from being the dominant visual mass medium.

What the soldiers in the Crimean field expected from the first war photographer was a chance to have their pictures taken. Fenton describes this well and idiomatically:

In order to avoid the necessity of explaining to all comers what my carriage was for, I had made Sparling [his assistant] paint on it “Photographic Van.” While developing a picture, a conversation went on outside which I give as a specimen of many similar ones: “Eh, Jem, what’s that, P.H.O. to graph. Is that anything to do with the [telegraph] line?” “No, they say there’s a chap in there taking pictures.” “Is there? Then he shall take mine.” A knock at the door and a good pull to open it without waiting for an answer. The door being locked, there was another knock and another speech: “Here you fellow, open the door and take my picture.” The door was opened and he was told that we were not taking portraits. “What did you come for if you are not going to take pictures? I’ll have mine done, cost what it may. What’s to pay?” “It can’t be done now, pay or no pay.” “Can’t it, though? I’ll go to Mr. Beatty and get an order for it; I’ll have it, and I’d like to see the man that’ll stop me, you won’t, nor Lord Raglan himself.”

Although the lower classes could not order Fenton around like some fairground portraitist (and this is the source of the humor of the description), among the officer class precisely the same expectation could be found. Here is Lieutenant Richard Temple Godman writing home in March 1855:

The Photograph man has taken a picture of our camp, the officers and horses standing about, my hut does not come in well. He has also taken me and my horse (in fighting costume) and Kilburn [Godman’s servant], the latter likeness is excellent, when I can I will tell you where to go in London for copies, as many as you please at 5s [shillings] each.2

Not everyone, it seems from this passage, was obliged to fork out the enormous sixty pounds Fenton demanded for a whole portfolio.

The first natural assumption, then, was that a photographer on the battlefield would be there to take portraits of the soldiers, a function Fenton happily fulfilled, at least for the officers who could pay him. The second thought must have been that he would record the topography of the battle, and this, as we have seen, proved difficult, since it was hard to get near enough to the fortresses to make them figure at all in a photograph. At no time did Fenton (from what I have read) get any-where near hand-to-hand combat, although Greenough inadvertently implies that he did when she says he describes himself as acting like “a madman…covered with blood and brains spurting from a poor fellow” shot close to him.

This passage comes, in fact, not from one of Fenton’s letters but from an account by his soldier brother-in-law, Edward Maynard, of storming up a ladder to attack one of the forts guarding the entrance to Sebastopol. It is worth reading as an example of the vivid sort of description families were receiving back home:

As for myself, the first [ladder] I came at I went at waving my sword and shouting, I believe, like a madman to urge my company to follow, which they did, but some of the poor fellows were knocked over before they reached the parapet. Many were obstructed by the crowds of men on the bank side. I was scarcely mounted on the top of the parapet myself, before my face was covered with blood and brains spurting from a poor fellow of another regiment who was shot close to me. Such a sight as I must have been for the 2 1/2 hours we remained up there, men falling in every direction and at times almost knocking one over as they fell; then the moans of the poor fellows as they lay at one’s feet dying and crying for assistance, but no aid could be given. One object was in view: if possible, to drive the Russians away from behind their parapet, and in endeavouring to accomplish this, dead and dying were alike forgotten and trampled under foot.

Here if you like is what the lady in the Punch joke wanted, the good view of the nice battle at the moment of victory. Obviously it is quite beyond the repertoire of the photographer, and Fenton never attempted anything remotely like it. He did not, as Greenough tells us, “participate in” the disastrous June attacks on the Malakhov and Redan fortresses. He watched them through glasses from a distance, and he makes clear in his account just how much and how little he could see.

It was nevertheless dangerous work, but the danger came from the artillery rather than the rifle, saber, or bayonet. Describing the second bombardment of Sebastopol, Fenton tells us that

there was no stop to the awful commotion in the air. The 68-pounders especially almost burst the ears, and the shot from them sounded like an express train that had broken off the line and leapt up into the air. The shot and shell did not disturb me so much as the awful clangour, as if all hell had broken loose and the legions of Lucifer were fighting in the air…. Seeing that I was afraid, I thought it best to walk backwards so that I could see if any shot were coming.

He was often afraid, and doesn’t mind saying so. Everyone had expected the Malakhov and Redan fortresses to fall, and Fenton thought he would then enter Sebastopol with the victorious allies. “When that attempt failed,” he wrote later, “and to the list of friends already sacrificed were added new names, I felt quite unequal to farther exertion.” This sentence, which lies buried in the footnotes of the Washington catalog, should carry great emotional weight. Thousands of French and British soldiers had died in a day, owing to a bungled decision about the timing of an attack. Fenton had had enough. He seems to have had neither the nerve nor the enthusiasm to go forward, as Russell did, braving the mines, and examine the little bit of ground that had been won. He gave up. He sold off everything—horses,

photographic van, the lot—and got out just as he began to go down with cholera.

You may call this a professional mistake—Sebastopol would fall within three months—but, if it was a mistake, it was the kind of mistake that photographers and journalists have made ever since. You may call it lack of bravery, but it is a bad idea, professionally, to work beyond your own resources of bravery. You lose a sense of judgment, and you cannot work well without judgment. If your judgment says “It’s time to go home,” then it’s probably a good idea to listen.

Fenton wasn’t “committed to” war photography—indeed, it forms only a part of the beautiful Washington show, alongside landscape, still life, architecture, museum work, and portraiture. He wasn’t even committed to photography itself, and in due course, in 1862, he simply abandoned it, just as he had once abandoned his ambitions as a painter, and sold off all his stock, negatives and all. Various reasons were suggested for his abdication. He was thought to have been unconvinced that photographic prints could be made permanent—much of this pioneering work was indeed disappearing before people’s eyes. He has been thought to be unwilling to sacrifice quality in the face of a fashion for carte-de-visite portraits. Greenough suggests plausibly that the death of his infant son in 1860, the third of his six children to die, made him reflect, in his grief, that he had not spent enough time with his family, or provided for their futures. Certainly his next move was appropriate to a man with such concerns: he returned to the law. But he did not have long to live. He died in 1869 at the age of fifty, after a short illness caused, we are told, by hurrying to catch a train.

  1. 1

    Cited in Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, Roger Fenton: Photographer of the Crimean War, His Photographs and Letters from the Crimea (London: Secker and Warburg, 1954), p. 11.

  2. 2

    The Fields of War: A Young Cavalryman’s Crimea Campaign, edited by Philip Warner (London: John Murray, 1977), p. 148.

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