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Witness to History: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimean War

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The Library’s documentary and photojournalism collections reflect just how regularly photographers in each generation have taken up the challenge of providing a visual record of noteworthy events and scenes of the everyday.  This is the first in a series of blog posts that consider major photojournalism and documentary photo collections in the Prints and Photographs Division, expanded from an article in the Nov.-Dec. 2016 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine (LCM).

War is one of the newsworthy events that, from the early years of photography onwards, has spurred ambitious documentary enterprises. In early March, 1855, photographer Roger Fenton embarked on just such a venture on the Crimean peninsula, where British, French, and Turkish forces were battling Russian troops. Fenton’s Crimean War photographs represent one of the earliest systematic attempts to document a war through the medium of photography. In less than four months, (March 8 to June 26, 1855), he produced 360 photographs, of which the Library of Congress has 263 salted paper and albumen prints.

The artist's van. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.
The artist’s van. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.

The photos highlight the leading figures of the allied armies, camp life of the British soldiers, as well as scenes in and around Balaklava, and on the plateau before Sevastopol. The photographs below give a glimpse of the coverage:

Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Burghersh, C.B. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.
Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Burghersh, C.B. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.
Military camp. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.
Military camp. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.
Officer of the 57th Regiment sitting with a sword across his lap at opening to his tent, another officer sitting outside the tent, and a servant stands with a horse in the background. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.
Members of the 57th Regiment. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.
The sanitary commission. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.
The sanitary commission. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.

What Fenton didn’t capture were any images of combat or its human consequences. Several explanations have been offered to account for why the photographs show little of the dire conditions and other negative aspects of the war, including rampant disease and lack of food and other supplies, that the newspapers had been highlighting for months.Victorian standards of propriety precluded showing dead bodies. And although Fenton used state-of-the art technology, lengthy exposure time prohibited capturing action scenes, and the work was intricate, at best. Flies, dust and extreme heat challenged Fenton’s efforts to keep the glass photographic plates clean and complicated his work with chemicals that reacted differently in high temperatures and dried much faster in the Crimean climate. Fenton also commented on how the quality of the light affected the times of day he could photograph. Moreover, a portion of that time was taken up with troops requesting to have their pictures taken, causing him to “dread the sight of English officers riding up to my van.” But Fenton’s and others’ intentions in carrying out the photographic documentation may have also played a role in shaping the coverage. Fenton was operating with the support of the British government and with the financial backing of a publisher, Thomas Agnew & Sons, that hoped to temper negative press accounts by issuing sets of photographs for sale.

A Research Focus

Fenton’s photographs have stirred interest not simply as documents of war, but as a focus for understanding matters of photographic intent, practice, and meaning. Perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the photographs that has attracted the most lasting attention was the one that hinted most strongly at the dangers of war and its devastating potential. Fenton called the photo “The Valley of the Shadow of Death.”

The valley of the shadow of death. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.
The valley of the shadow of death. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.

Two variants of the photo exist: one showing cannonballs on the side of the road, and the other with the cannonballs seemingly strategically and more dramatically scattered across the road (the Library of Congress has only the latter photo, but the two can be seen together in a blog post from the Harry Ransom Center).

An assertion by Susan Sontag, among others, captured the interest of writer and filmmaker Errol Morris. Sontag maintained that Fenton staged the photograph, artfully scattering cannonballs that had formerly been on the edge of the road. Morris wondered if that was really the sequence of events, and he sought to determine which of the two photographs had been taken first. He recounts his conversations with photo historians as well as his own attempt to recreate the photograph, taking into account patterns of light and shadow. His wide-ranging essay, “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?” is a tour de force in conveying the lengths to which he went in an effort to establish the factual: precisely when, why and how a photograph was made, while also highlighting the philosophical: how we look at and understand photographs.

From two photographs, so much to question, explore and understand! What questions would you ask of the Roger Fenton photographs?

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Comments (3)

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. The Fenton photos were invaluable to me while working through a series of sheet music illustrations on Crimean subjects:
    While dances may seem a frivolous reaction to the horrors of war, clearly the public bought such music in large quantities, in support of, or obsession with, war subjects. Am so looking forward to being able to view the photos online rather than in publications! You’re doing great work over there.

  2. Thanks for the pictures, and for the pointer to Errol Morris’s exceptional (!) blog-essay. It reminded me of the Library’s 1992-93 exploration of photographs from the battlefield of Gettysburg, now on the web here: Looking back at this three-part micro-essay, I could not spot a note that gives proper credit for the source of these insights into the Gettysburg images. The surname “Frassanito” was mentioned but I did not spot the (missing?) footnote, one that would let readers know about this fascinating book: William A. Frassanito, _Gettysburg: A Journey in Time_ (1975). That book is another Errol Morris-like guide to the analysis of the evidence in documentary photographs.

    • Thank you for the comment–Frassanito’s work was on my mind, too, as I read Morris’s essay. The credits to Frassanito have now been restored to the essays you mention–they apparently got dropped during a conversion effort.
      Stay tuned next month for our next “Witness to History” blog post relating to the Civil War photographs! — Barbara

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