Remembering Roger Fenton – the first war photographer

ByDavid M. Conte

Aug 9, 2021

In the 19th century, a number of prominent British historical figures resided at the Potters Bar, including Roger Fenton, the world’s first official war photographer. It’s his story, including how his work during the Crimean War won him acclaim and he came to take the iconic photo of the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Born in Heywood, Lancashire on March 28, 1819, Fenton’s path to the war-torn landscape of the Crimean Peninsula and the bloody soil of Sevastopol was unconventional.

He studied law in London and painted in Paris before embarking on photography in the early 1850s, but when he did, he was not matched by any other English photographer during ‘the age. of gold ”from the medium.


Fenton’s photos were often posed – like this one – due to the limitations of his photographic equipment.
– Credit: Roger Fenton

Venturing to Britain, he captured photos of the country’s churches and abbeys before traveling to Russia in 1852 to photograph the landscapes of Moscow and Kiev.

Fenton would be recognized for his work in the years that followed, founding the Photographic Society – now known as the Royal Photographic Society – in 1853, then being appointed the first official photographer of the British Museum in 1854.


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Then, in 1855, as the Crimean War raged, he was assigned to capture the carnage in the region, a task that would see his work gain wide recognition – but also wreak havoc on him.


"Roger Fenton, Captain Graham and Captain MacLeod, 42nd Regiment, 1855, salted paper print from coll

Fenton captured images of soldiers, like this one of Captain Graham and Captain MacLeod of the 42nd Regiment.
– Credit: Roger Fenton / National Art Gallery

At the end of 1853, Russia attempted to expand its influence into the European territory of the Ottoman Empire, with Britain, France, Sardinia and Turkey forming an alliance to stop their efforts.

After a year of slow progress and little action, the Allies launched an attack on the Russian port of Sevastopol on the Black Sea, resulting in the now infamous and bloody siege of the city for 11 months.

Critical reporting of the savage fighting in the region, including the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava – immortalized by the famous poet Alfred Tennyson – had aroused concern among the British public. As a result, Fenton was commissioned by publishers Thomas Agnew & Sons to travel to Crimea and document the war, a mission encouraged by the government.


Roger Fenton's balaclava photo

A view of the Balaclava lines from Guard’s Hill.
– Credit: Roger Fenton / Library of Congress

He departed aboard HMS Hecla in February and landed in Balaklava on March 8 with photographic assistant Marcus Sparling and a large horse-drawn equipment van.

Due to the size and long exposures of the photographic equipment of the time, Fenton limited himself to producing images of still objects such as the port of Balaklava, camps, battlefields and portraits of officers, soldiers and support personnel.

Due to the nature of his mission, he avoided taking photos of dead, injured or maimed soldiers.




Image of Roger Fenton from Cathcart’s Hill cemetery in Crimea.
– Credit: Roger Fenton / National Art Gallery

Fenton remained in Crimea until the end of June and upon his return to Britain 11 of his photos were exhibited by Agnew in an exhibition titled Eleven Part Panorama of the Sevastopol Plateau.

Among these images was an image often cited as the first iconic photograph of the war.

Taken on the road to Woronzoff, Fenton captured the vast, sweeping landscape, filled with nothing but cannonballs fired during the siege of the harbor.


Roger Fenton Valley of the Shadow of Death

Iconic photograph of the Shadow Valley of Fenton’s Death.
– Credit: Roger Fenton

Agnew named the photo “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” in reference to Tennyson’s charge of the light brigade, the name given to the area by British troops and Psalm 23, and she has since entered the ‘story.

Research in the early 21st century led to questions about the validity of Fenton’s image, with some claiming that he had set up photo after photo he showed the area without any cannonballs present.

It is now believed that this photo was taken first, and the second was captured as the troops gathered the bullets and rolled them up the hill to the left of the image for reuse later in combat.

This now iconic capture and its display earned Fenton critical praise, but his time in Death Valley has left its mark on him.

Depressed by the fierce fighting he had witnessed, the photographer also endured the summer heat, broke several ribs in a fall and suffered a bout of cholera, but managed to take more than 350 Usable large format negatives – many in the works. show around Britain.


Roger Fenton is the camp of the 4th Dragoons and Mrs. Rogers

The camp of the 4th Dragoons and Mrs. Rogers, captured by Fenton.
– Credit: Roger Fenton

After returning from Crimea, Fenton continued his photography work before selling his equipment and negatives and resigning from the Royal Photographic Society in 1862.

He would move soon after to Potters Bar – then in Middlesex County – shortly thereafter, building a now demolished house which gave its name to the Mount Grace School, before dying on August 8, 1869, at the age 50, after struggling for a week sick.

Fenton’s legacy lives on today through his iconic images and tireless work to bring photography from its infancy to an established medium that rivaled painting and drawing.


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