Monday, June 7, 2010

Roger Fenton

One of the three photographers that the Special Event in DC focused on was Roger Fenton. (Fenton's self-portrait courtesy of wikipedia, who had no idea from where it had gotten it).

Roger Fenton (March 20, 1819 - August 8, 1869) was born in Lancashire, England - his grandfather had earned the family's wealth in trade. He attended the University College London, and afterward took an extraordinarily long time to become a lawyer. He took his time studying law, because he actually wanted to be a painter. He studied with respected historical painters in Paris and London, and attempted to have a few works admitted to the Royal Academy.

He visited the 1851 Great Exhibition and was struck by the photography displays. Soon after he was back in Paris, this time learning how to make calotypes - waxed paper negatives - and salted paper prints. Fenton was a fast learner, and by 1852 he was entering his own photographic work into exhibitions and was instrumental in forming what would later become the Royal Photographic Society.

His first photographs really aren't that great, but before too long something clicked, and Fenton started making some fabulous pictures.

He traveled to Russia, technically to photograph an under-construction bridge, even though there are only like three pictures of the bridge out of scores of others.

Moscow, Domes of Churches in the Kremlin, 1851, National Gallery of Art
This is much better is real life. You'll just have to trust me on it.

In 1855 Britain was involved int he Crimean War, and Fenton was commissioned by a publisher named Thomas Agnew to travel to the Crimea and photograph. Fenton took on two assistants, fitted out a large wagon as a traveling darkroom/tent, and field tested it in rural England. After making the necessary adjustments to the wagon, the team sailed for the Crimea.

The Artist's Van, 1855, PH - Fenton (R.), no. 122, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Dromedary, 1855 PH - Fenton (R.), no. 298, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Because of the over 300 images Fenton made in the Crimea, he is noted as the first war photographer. Even though the American Civil War is only a few years away, the 'war' photography done by Fenton is quite different. Fenton never photographs the dead or wounded, whereas the Civil War photographers had no hesitations. Why Fenton made that choice is still unclear.

This is probably the most well-known of Fenton's Crimean photographs. The road is covered with cannonballs fired by the Russians.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855, PH - Fenton (R.), no. 218, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

These images are of color slides, and they're probably from the mid-nineties, before the photographs were treated. Observe below: very dirty, and with a big loss along the bottom edge. This print looks very different now - much less dirty, tears mended, and losses filled.

Sebastopol with the Redan, Malakoff & Mamelon, 1855, PH - Fenton (R.), no. 122, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division


Heather said...

I love Fenton's striped pants and vest. Crazy Victorians! Your photographer retrospective reminds me of our History of Photography class during winter sesh '05? Who was that crazy girl in our black and white photography class?

Jessica said...

Only imagine what colors those clothes must have been!

Oh that crazy girl! - she had a real name, but wanted us to use a different name. I can't remember either. Remember those self portraits???