War Through a Lens — Roger Fenton and the Birth of Battlefield Photography

The English photographer Roger Fenton captured some of history’s first images of an army in the field. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Over the course of the war, Fenton was able to capture more than 360 exposures, most in encampments, in the harbour and surrounding countryside.”

By Frederick J. Chiaventone

IN OCTOBER OF 1862, Mathew Brady exhibited a collection of photographs entitled The Dead of Antietam. The images were largely the work of his employees Alexander Gardner and James Gibson.

The public had never before seen anything like it.

“Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war,” wrote one reporter. “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”

The Dead of Antietam immortalized Brady. In fact, to many Americans, he became the father of battlefield photography. Yet a decade before the New York native had even set foot on a battlefield, one Englishman was creating history’s first true photographic record of armies at war. His name was Roger Fenton.

Matthew Brady’s ‘The Dead of Antietam.’ (Image source: WikiCommons)

Originally trained as a lawyer at Oxford and then University College, Fenton was unable to secure a position with a law firm after graduation. Instead, the unemployed barrister travelled to Paris to pursue a new-found passion for painting. There, he enrolled at the École nationale supérieur des Beaux-Arts and would later claim to have studied under Paul Delaroche and Michel Martin Drolling, though there are no records to support these claims. He later returned to London where the historical artist Charles Lucy took him under his wing. He and Lucy became close friends and served together on the board of the North London School of Drawing and Modelling. He also continued to work as an artist producing landscapes that were accomplished enough to be exhibited by the Royal Academy of Arts.

Roger Fenton, a self-portrait. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Fenton’s first exposure to the art of photography, still in its infancy, came at the Great Exposition of 1851. Immediately intrigued by the medium, he devoted himself to learning more. He soon returned to Paris and was mentored by the trailblazing Gustave Le Gray. An enthusiastic shutter-bug, Fenton traveled extensively throughout England and then deep into Russia making capturing images of everything from landscapes to architecture. It was not an easy process. Nineteenth century photography was a complex by today’s standards, particularly the developing and printing of daguerreotypes — an early method for rendering images. The process involved a silver-coated copper plate treated with iodine being exposed to light for as long as 30 minutes. And unlike today’s cameras, photographic equipment of the era was bulky and required a considerable effort to be transported and used.

Before photography, all the British public knew of the war in the Crimea was what illustrators, engravers and sketch artists could render. Photography would change that. (Image source: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images. http://wellcomeimages.org)

As fate would have it, Fenton’s involvement in photography, along with his reputation for excellence in this emerging field, came to the attention of the British government at a particularly opportune moment. In 1853, Great Britain and France found themselves at war with Imperial Russia on behalf of their ally Ottoman Turkey. Both powers, along with the Italian kingdom of Sardinia, dispatched armies for a lengthy and poorly run campaign on the Crimean Peninsula.

By the end of 1854, the British public had lost its enthusiasm for the conflict, while some in Parliament began asking embarrassing questions about the conduct of the war. Newspaper reports of mismanagement of the military in the field were underscored by long casualty lists from the battles at Inkerman, the Alma and Balaclava, as well as unflattering reports of poor to non-existent medical care for the wounded. As the controversies widened, the prime minister, George Hamilton-Gordon, the Fourth Earl of Aberdeen, eventually tendered his resignation as his government collapsed.

Queen Victoria, who had sat before Fenton’s camera with her husband Prince Albert, recommended that the photographer be sent to the Crimea to create a visual record of Britain’s war effort there. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Amid the deepening turmoil, Queen Victoria, believed she had an idea that would help win back public support for the war. Having recently sat before Fenton’s camera with her husband Prince Albert, she suggested that the photographer be dispatched to the scene of the conflict. It was hoped that images of the brave men serving the empire would help to quiet the voices of dissension. Thus, the firm of Thomas Agnew & Sons, art dealers and print publishers, were authorized to commission Fenton to travel to the Crimea and use his photographic equipment to “give convincing proof of the well-being of the troops after the disasters of the preceding winter, which had caused the downfall of the government.” Fenton was further admonished that he should not record gruesome scenes of carnage nor photograph the bodies of those killed in action as these would be unnecessarily disturbing images and difficult for the public to accept.

So, in 1855, Fenton and two assistants boarded HMS Hecla and left for the Crimea. They were accompanied by 36 crates of equipment and supplies, including glass plates, five cameras, chemicals, a stove, tinned rations, water tanks and additional gear. To transport all of these materials in the field, Fenton had converted a large wine merchant’s wagon. It would serve as a traveling combination darkroom, sleeping quarters and office.

Fenton’s rolling dark-room. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The party arrived in Balaclava on March 8, 1855. Carrying letters of introduction, including one from Prince Albert, Fenton was quickly accepted and embraced by British officers who sat eagerly for photographic portraits. One officer, Colonel Edward Hooper Lodge, happily sent his portrait home.

“I have had a sketch [photograph] made of my hut and camp by Mr. Fenton, the photographer to the British Museum, who is out here,” he wrote. “It is of course very correct, but it should be coloured to give you a good idea of the beauty of the rocks and hills.”

Fenton’s lens captured the sweeping landscapes of the Crimea. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Notwithstanding the beautiful the rocks and hills, whatever preconceptions Fenton had of warfare were quickly dispelled. The Crimea was a primitive, nasty environment made infinitely worse by the presence of thousands of soldiers, wagons, artillery and livestock. Conditions in the army camps were dismal while the climate in the region alternated between baking hot and brutal cold. The dusty ground turned quickly into a quagmire at the slightest rain and the landscape was rife with insects, vermin and the ever-present spectre of disease. Cholera cut a terrible swath through the ranks as more soldiers were felled by disease than bullets or shells.

Soldiers of the 47th Regiment try to keep warm on the bleak windswept plains of the Crimea. (Image source: WikiCommons)

War was quite obviously not the glorious endeavour of the popular imagination. Moving about the countryside to document the campaign, Fenton and his assistants quickly found that their ‘photographic van’ also made a tempting target for Russian artillery – which was fortunately rather inaccurate. Nor were working conditions in the van very comfortable. The noxious chemicals used to develop photographs combined with the intense heat in the enclosed space could be deadly. Fenton himself was nearly killed by the chemical fumes.

Fenton’s camera reveals the squalid living conditions that were common to armies of the Victorian era. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Over the remaining course of the war Fenton was able to capture more than 360 exposures, most in encampments, in the harbour and surrounding countryside of Balaclava, and at Sevastopol. Certainly, his photographs included the senior officers involved in the campaign.

A battlefield nurse or ‘vivandiere.’ (Image source: WikiCommons)

But, in addition to these, Fenton was able to document scores of other participants in the war – captains, lieutenants, sergeants, and the ranks of enlisted men in bivouac – cavalry, hussars, dragoons, highlanders, infantry, grenadiers, fusiliers, and artillery — not only British but also French, Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Turkish. There are even photographs of nurses and vivandieré (women who operated military canteens).

Lord Balgonie provides the first photographic study of PTSD. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Among his many photos, a few stand out. The first is of Captain Alexander Leslie-Melville, Lord Balgonie, of the Grenadier Guards. A veteran of the vicious fights at Inkerman, the Alma River and Sevastopol, Lord Balgonie did not survive long after the war, dying at his family estates in England in 1857 at the age of 27. From Fenton’s photo, it appears that Balgonie is suffering the after-effects of combat, his vacant look now more frequently described as the “thousand-yard stare.” This condition later referred to as “shell shock” or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is something commonly seen in combat veterans. Fenton’s photograph may well be the first visual documentation of this condition.

Russian round shot litters the “Valley of the Shadow of Death.” But did Fenton fake this image by littering the roadway with cannon balls? (Image source: WikiCommons)

Another of Fenton’s photos claims that it exhibits the route of the Light Brigade charge into the Russian gun emplacements and is labeled Valley of the Shadow of Death. There is however some controversy over this claim, there being two photographs of the same road – one empty and one littered with cannonballs. Some experts have since argued that the photo of the cannonball littered road is the result of soldiers gathering the expended rounds from the surrounding terrain and tossing them on the road for later collection. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is at the very least obvious that the area was subject to an intense concentration of artillery fire.

Survivors of the ill-fated ‘Charge of the Light Brigade,’ as seen through the lens of Roger Fenton. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Due to the technological limitations of early photography Fenton was unable to capture any photographs which we might term “action shots.” The exposure times were simply too long. He had also agreed not to take graphic images of the aftermath of battles but noted in his personal journals his exposure to the horrors of war, once noting how he had come upon the corpse of a Russian soldier “lying as if he had raised himself upon his elbow, the bare skull sticking up with still enough flesh left in the muscles to prevent it falling from the shoulders.” It should not be surprising that many soldiers, like Lord Balgonie, had experienced that and much worse.

Fenton captures the war corespondent William Howard Russell. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Another photo which is especial interest is of a man who would blaze new trails in the annals of war reporting. William Howard Russell, who would later be referred to as the “Father of War Reporting,” was dispatched to the Crimea by The Times of London as a special correspondent.

Not bound by the same rules as Fenton regarding coverage of the war, Russell was described by one soldier as “a vulgar low Irishman, [who] sings a good song, drinks anyone’s brandy and water and smokes as many cigars as a Jolly Good Fellow. He is just the sort of chap to get information, particularly out of youngsters.”

With a clear eye, Russell would spend 22 months covering the Crimean War exposing atrocious flaws in its management and conduct. Inept leadership, inadequate logistics and abysmal health care were of especial interest to the pugnacious journalist. He was immune to the protests of the war’s senior military leadership and shrugged off Lord Raglan’s insistence that no one on his staff speak to the tenacious and perceptive reporter. His dispatches for The Times had a significant impact on the home front. While he saluted the bravery and conduct of the soldiers, he was brutal in his assessment of the failures of the leadership. Furthermore, he decried the horrendous lack of care for the wounded. His reporting, along with that of his colleague Thomas Chenery, made such an impact at home that well-organized and supervised medical care, with the urging of people like Florence Nightingale, became a standard on the battlefield.

Cornet Wilkin of the 11th Hussars. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Fenton’s photographs had an electrifying impact on the British public. A number of his exposures went on display in the Old Watercolour Gallery in Pall in September of 1855. It was a notable success not only with the public but with numerous distinguished visitors including Lord Cardigan, commander of the now-fabled Light Brigade, General Burgoyne, and France’s General Bosquet. Commenting on the exhibition, the British literary magazine The Athenaeum praised Fenton’s work in the Crimea.

“As photographers grow stronger in nerve and cooler in head, we shall have not merely the bivouac and the foraging party, but the battle itself painted,” the publication reported. A few short years later, with the American Civil War and the work of Mathew Brady and his assistants like Alexander Gardener, this prediction would come closer to fact and by the early 20th Century it would be exactly correct.

Men of the 68th Regiment of Foot.
(Image source: WikiCommons)

Although he eventually gave up photography, Roger Fenton had made a significant contribution to the promotion of this revolutionary art form. The founding father of the Royal Photographic Society, he determined that he would be unable to support himself on the art and so in 1862 sold all of his equipment and negatives at auction and returned to the practice of law.

He passed away quietly in 1869 at the relatively young age of 50. Luckily, a great many of his exposures from the Crimea have been preserved and can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Despite the existence of photographs from the Mexican-American War, Fenton’s work is considerably larger and more complex thus he well deserves the title when he is referred to as “the Father of War Photography.”

Frederick J. Chiaventone is a novelist, screenwriter, military historian, consultant, commentator, and retired cavalry officer. His novel A Road We Do Not Know: A Novel of Custer at the Little Bighorn won the 1999 Ambassador William E. Colby Award.

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