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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Roger Fenton (1819–1869)

Roger Fenton is a towering figure in the history of photography, the most celebrated and influential photographer in England during the medium’s “golden age” of the 1850s. Before taking up the camera, he studied law in London and painting in Paris. He traveled to Russia in 1852 and photographed the landmarks of Kiev and Moscow; founded the Photographic Society (later designated the Royal Photographic Society) in 1853; was appointed the first official photographer of the British Museum in 1854; achieved widespread recognition for his photographs of the Crimean War in 1855; and excelled throughout the decade as a photographer in all the medium’s genres—architecture, landscape, portraiture, still life, reportage, and tableau vivant.

As a photographer of architecture, Fenton was without equal in England. He assigned himself the task of photographing the major churches and abbeys of Great Britain and, working most often in a format as large as 14 x 18 inches, wedded perfect technique with an unerring ability to choose the precise vantage point and lighting conditions that would best render the smallest details of architecture, convey a sense of monumentality, and imbue his pictures with a Romantic spirit. His subjects include the Gothic cathedrals of Salisbury, Wells, Lincoln, and Lichfield; Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and the British Museum; Windsor and Balmoral Castles; and the ruined abbeys of Rievaulx, Fountains, Rosslyn, and Lindisfarne.

In landscape photography, too, Fenton was without parallel among his countrymen. The most compelling of his views of the English, Welsh, and Scottish countryside call to mind the paintings of Constable and Turner as well as Romantic poems by William Wordsworth that celebrate man’s ties to nature. Fenton possessed a particular sensitivity for the play of light and atmosphere in the natural world, a subject he explored throughout the decade of his career with as much determination and success as he did architecture. “No one can touch Fenton in landscape,” wrote the critic for the Journal of the Photographic Society in a review of the annual exhibition in 1858. “There is such an artistic feeling about the whole of these pictures … that they cannot fail to strike the beholder as being something more than mere photographs.”

Fenton’s most widespread acclaim came in 1855, with photographs of the Crimean War, a conflict in which British, French, Sardinian, and Turkish troops battled Russia’s attempt to expand its influence into European territory of the Ottoman empire. Fenton was commissioned by the Manchester publisher Thomas Agnew & Sons to travel to the Crimea and document the war, and his mission was encouraged by the government, which hoped that his photographs would reassure a worried public. Fenton’s extensive documentation of the war—the first such use of photography—included pictures of the port of Balaklava, the camps, the terrain of battle, and portraits of officers, soldiers, and support staff of the various allied armies.

Perhaps inspired by the experience of traveling through Constantinople en route to Balaklava, or perhaps simply sharing the mid-nineteenth-century vogue for all things exotic, Fenton produced a theatrical suite of Orientalist compositions during the summer of 1858—costume pieces that strove for high art rather than documentation and that were, in a sense, an antidote to the harsh realities he had recorded in the Crimea. They owed as much to the paintings of Delacroix and Ingres as to Fenton’s own experience in the East.

In 1862, after a final series of photographs—a remarkable group of lush still lifes—Fenton sold his equipment and negatives, resigned from the Royal Photographic Society, and returned to the bar. In the course of a single decade, Fenton had played a pivotal role—by advocacy and example—in demonstrating that photography could rival drawing and painting not only as a means of conveying information, but also as a medium of visual delight and powerful expression.