We featured a picture of Roger Fenton, sitting on his Photo van during the Crimean War (1853-1856) in our Photo of a day section. We also mentioned his famous image ‘The valley of the shadow of death’ in that publication. Interestingly, we had no idea that it was a part of TOP 100 most influential photos in history in the Time magazine list. And now the time has come to give you the better picture of Roger Fenton photo career, his short camera journey from the lawyer to the ‘grandfather of the war photography’ status.
Capturing the war action
Nowadays, photo reporters that specialize in war action picturing, have an interesting saying: ‘If your images aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’ Well, Roger Fenton didn’t have to follow this rule of thumb when he departed to the Crimean War in 1855. After all, you can allow yourself a bit milder photo action, when you are the only photographer in both armies. Take to account the gigantic camera sizes(so heavy that Fenton had to transport it a van), massive glass plate negatives (Polaroid was not an option). And now an interesting one. Fenton never photographed corpses of soldiers. The rules of the 19th photography were not settled yet, postmortems were not invented too.
Roger Fenton couldn’t capture real military action due to the limitations of the first camera’s exposures. Actual battles were too fast. But the photographer did his best to portray the combatants, and supporting crew. He focuses mainly on those soldiers and officers who came from Britain but captured some French and Ottomans allies too.
Read more: The history of the Korean War in 34 photos
Relying on long exposures made it impossible for Mr. His camera also caught armaments, supply facilities, minimalistic field homes, and the many, many horses: the only transport available on the Crimean peninsula. Roger traveled in a photo truck that served as his darkroom too and stayed in action until complete Russia’s defeat in 1856.
Many of his negatives were lost during the transportation to London, but several hundreds of images that survived pere published in the book “Shadows of War: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea, 1855”.
From lawyer to the photographer
Roger Fenton had a decent career as a lawyer before the events in Crimea. Photography was just a hobby, but his camera activities led to the co-founding of the Royal British Photographic Society. Fenton specialized in the landscape images, that came in handy during the Crimean war.
Fenton supposed that his numerous portraits of the British combatants will help define British public opinion about the war. The conflict with Russia was covered by the newspapers, and images were a good addon. Notably, a trip to Crimea had its cost to Mr. Fenton: he broke several ribs in a fall and caught cholera, which could be a death sentence to many in the 19th century.
The story of “Valley of the Shadow of Death”
Nowadays, photographers have a bag of tricks to make their action photos a bit more catchy and attractive. It seems like Mr.Fenton had some tricks too. His image “Valley of the Shadow of Death” was the first iconic war photograph, and as experts say it had been staged.
The trick is the combination of two different images. One with cannonballs littering the road and the other with the cannonballs by the roadside. Roger traveled alone, so there’s no evidence of how this picture was taken, but historians suppose that someone moved the cannonballs between exposures. If it was the Fenton, then the image would also be the first staged war photo.
Fenton spent almost a year in Crimea and brought the plates back to England. He organized several exhibitions across Britain, asking one shilling to see his war imagers. Fenton used to say that almost two million brits saw his works, but nonetheless he made little profit of his dangerous travel. Monetization of photography failed miserably and Roger sold his camera equipment in 1863, restarted his lawyer career.