When the Shooting Started

A century and a half ago, Britain’s Roger Fenton pioneered the art of war photography

The Crimean War, when British, French and Turkish troops united to invade the Crimea in 1854 and take the naval base at Sevastopol from the Russians, was in many ways the first modern war. The telegraph and railroad both played vital roles, Florence Nightingale introduced efficient field nursing, and for the first time newspaper reporters and photographers covered the conflict. It was the first "armchair war," which a distant public could experience as a kind of spectacle.

The Russians were eventually driven from the Crimean Peninsula (in present-day Ukraine), and more than half a million people would be killed in a war that a historian in 1954 called the "most futile...ever fought, and the most fantastically mismanaged." The war's leading correspondent was William Howard Russell. His scathing accounts in The (London) Times of the grim conditions endured by British troops in the winter of 1854-55 because of appalling mismanagement—seven-eighths of the deaths were from cholera or overexposure, only one in eight from wounds—precipitated Prime Minister George Hamilton Gordon's resignation.

Roger Fenton, a 36-year-old London lawyer and moderately successful painter, had been taking photographs for little more than three years when he sailed for the Crimea in February 1855. He was financed by Thomas Agnew, a Manchester print dealer and publisher, who hoped to profit from sales of the pictures, and also by Britain's secretary of state for war, Henry Pelham-Clinton, who had reason to show the conflict in a better light. Previously, members of the militaries on both sides had taken pictures—Leo Tolstoy, then in the Russian Army, reportedly took photographs—but Fenton was the first war photojournalist with a commercial assignment.

By the time Fenton reached the Crimea, in March, conditions were somewhat better; new supplies, Nightingale and her cadre of nurses, and spring had all arrived. Still, he saw terrible sights: wounded and dead men; half-buried skeletons; the harbor and encampments littered with rotting animal carcasses. He never photographed any of it. Victorian taste might have been offended, Victorian purchasers unwilling to buy.

Instead, Fenton made pictures of officers, ships in the harbor, men in camp, views of Sevastopol and the plain of Balaklava. Fenton was under fire many times. His horse-drawn, enclosed wagon, which held his darkroom, was a prime target for the Russians; once, its roof was blasted off.

But he never took a picture of a battle—he couldn't. The time needed to expose film was too long to register action. The closest he came was the exceptional Valley of the Shadow of Death, in which cannonballs scattered across a road represent carnage. That, and his picture of a cemetery called Cathcart's Hill, are the first known photographs of war's toll.

In June, Fenton returned home, sick with cholera but recovering. Victoria and Albert were so impressed by his pictures (360 in all) that they carried some with them when they visited Napoleon III, who then summoned Fenton and Agnew to Paris. The pictures were also displayed in London and elsewhere. "An exhibition of deeper interest was never opened to the public," one reviewer wrote, adding: "The stern reality stands revealed to the spectator....[A]fter viewing with deep emotion the silent gloom which overshadows the 'Valley of the Shadow of Death,' the eye rests with yet deeper feelings on the tombs on Cathcart's Hill." Although there had been drawings and written descriptions of people and battles in the Crimea, almost no one in Britain had seen photographs of the officers before, and none had seen photographs of military life. Then, too, drawings were unreliable; Fenton wrote Agnew that one artist's sketches in the newspaper "seem to astonish everyone from their total want of likeness to the reality."

It's not clear how Fenton's pictures influenced people's views of the war. And because they were expensive (a portfolio of 160 photographs cost about 60 pounds, or the equivalent of $5,500 today), few were sold. Agnew lost money, as Mathew Brady would ten years later when he tried to sell photographs after the American Civil War.

Fenton took photographs for barely 11 years. Primarily a landscape and architecture photographer—he made superb pictures of British churches, ruined abbeys and the streams and falls of the Lake District and North Wales—he was instrumental in founding Britain's first photographic society, was the British Museum's first official photographer, was accorded unusual photographic access to the royal family and was key to getting photography included in the Fine Arts Bill of 1862, which allowed photographers to copyright their work. That year he gave up photography and went back to law. He never said why. He died seven years later, at age 50.

A new exhibition of about 90 of Fenton's photographs, including his pioneering war-scene photojournalism, is scheduled to open this month at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. before traveling to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Tate in London. The photographs make clear Fenton's extraordinary range and underscore that he was, as Sarah Greenough, the exhibition's curator, says, "one of the most important of all English photographers."

Fenton's Crimean war pictures were greatly admired for their authenticity, but it's possible that he staged one scene. Fenton made two versions of Valley. In the most familiar version, cannon shot are chaotically strewn about the road, but in the other, the shot appear along the side of it. Did he, or someone else, clear the road for a better view or easier passage or, alternatively, place the cannon shot in the road for better effect? There is no way to know, but the earliest photograph that speaks directly of death in war just might have been a setup, arranged by the photographer to symbolize the shattering losses in the Crimea.

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