Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Roger Fenton: Crimea and After

This looks at his work in the Crimea and afterwards. You can find out more on his background, earlier life and work in the previous feature : Roger Fenton – The First War Photographer

Roger Fenton, The Photographic Van, 1855.

In preparing this feature I have made use of all of the standard histories of photography and many other works both in print and on line. There are several outstanding works on Fenton, including the book on his life by John Hannavy, ‘Roger Fenton of Crimble Hall’ (Gordon Fraser, 1975), and the essay ‘Roger Fenton and the Making of a Photographic Establishment’ by Valerie Lloyd in the fine catalogue for the show ‘The Golden Age of British Photography’, edited by Mark Haworth-Booth (Aperture & the V&A, 1984). As well as this and other detailed and informative text, the book has some fine reproductions of some of Fenton’s best images, along with many other of the finest works of the times. Both are currently out of print.

The War
The Crimean was fought by Britain and her allies to prevent Russia taking control of the Middle East, and in particular the Dardanelles joining the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, seen as an important trade route for Turkey, Britain and France. As so often, the justification given for the war was rather different, and the British public were not amused to find themselves apparently joining a war between France and Russia over who was to look after the Palestinian holy sites, taking place in an obscure peninsula in the Black Sea at the southern edge of the Ukraine.

It was a war that dragged on, with high casualties largely caused by military ineptitude and mismanagement of men and resources, probably best remembered for the work of Florence Nightingale who set up the first modern hospitals with her 38 trained and highly disciplined nurses, and for the suicidally futile ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ into certain death.

Fenton’s Commission
Manchester print dealer Thomas Agnew commissioned Fenton to go there and take “a round of portraits, scenic and personal” to illustrate the campaign. There had been two earlier unsuccessful attempts by the government to get photographs from the Crimea and Agnew was encouraged unofficially to try to provide pictures that might improve the image the war had in England.

To get to the Crimea and to work there, Fenton needed the cooperation both of the war ministry and the actual commanders in the field. He got letters of introduction to all of them written by Prince Albert, and was given transport in a government vessel for himself, his photographic assistant Marcus Sparling, two servants, three horses and the photographic van with 36 large cases of equipment, including 5 cameras and 700 glass plates.

In the Crimea
Fenton arrived in Balaklava in March 1855 amidst scenes of near total chaos. Difficulties in getting his equipment unloaded led to him breaking several ribs, leaving him in intense pain. The hot weather often made conditions in the darkroom intolerable and made plates dry out before they could be used.

Fenton was not there to make the kind of objective record we might expect from a photojournalist, but to make pictures that would have a market when he returned home. Of course photojournalists have often found their pictures un-saleable, as the current re-issue of Philip Jones Griffiths’ ‘Vietnam Inc’ reminds us. The classic book on the Vietnam War was self-published by the Magnum photographer as the press would use none of his pictures; it was only made possible because he managed to get a celebrity scandal scoop in Cambodia that hit headlines worldwide, and he used the earnings from this to present his work to the public.

Fenton also needed to keep both the government (who were providing transport and other facilities) and his royal sponsor happy, by producing work that showed the campaign in a favourable light. Much of his work is quite frankly rather boring, showing small groups of officers and men sitting or standing around in their camps. Quite simply he needed their day-to-day cooperation to achieve anything at all, and the only way he could get it was by taking their pictures.

For more information go to the link on the rhs

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