Photography is one of those activities which can be categorised as art and science, both. It has been a fascinating art and quite a beneficial science. From the time since photography came into practice, it has been extremely popular. So have been the photographers! While talking of legendary photographers of all time, one name is sure to come up in discussion- Roger Fenton. This renowned British photographer was the one who took photography to another level of excellence and service. He was one of the first war photographers and has made a great contribution to the field of photography in the 19th century. This essay is aimed at illuminating the life as well as the historical significance of the Roger Fenton.
Life of Roger Fenton
Roger Fenton was born on March 28, 1819 in Lancashire to a wealthy family (Taylor, 2006). His father was banker and a Member of Parliament as well. He was a bright student; he graduated from the University College London in 1840 after which he started pursuing law (Hannavy, 2008). Gradually his interest in art and painting developed which hampered his performance in law and eventually made him realise what he was meant to do.
1843 Fenton married Grace Elizabeth Maynard in 1843. He briefly took his first training in painting in the studio of Paul Delaroche. He is believed to have been registered as a copyist in the Louvre in 1844 but there is no record to prove it. He chose to return to London by 1847 and resumed studying to paint under the guidance of Charles Lucy.
Fenton’s friendship with Charles Lucy led to another turning point in their lives. Together they learned more. Fenton worked for North London School of Drawing and Modelling in 1850. Meanwhile, he exhibited several laudable painting exhibitions of the Royal Academy (Gernsheim, 1954). He gradually learned several skills related to painting and photography.
Historical significance of Roger Fenton’s work
It was not the great paintings of Roger Fenton which made him one of the most memorable artists of all time. It was mainly his war-photography. The Crimean War photographs taken by him are included in the prestigious list of Life’s 100 Photos That Changed The World. He was an inspiration to many.
In 1855, Roger Fenton was sent to the Crimean War as the first official War photographer which led to one of the best and most revered photographs of all time (Gernsheim, 1954). The famous picture ‘Valley of shadow of death’ became one of the most effective photographs ever. The silent valley with countless cannon balls made for a topic worth analysis. Fenton was especially recognised for his earnest dedication to this work. He suffered from cholera, got several ribs broken and faced extreme temperatures but still, he took more than 300 usable format negative. And all these negatives have been used for producing several prints which came in handy and are still quite precious.
There are numerous photographs by Roger Fenton which have been called as masterpiece. Some of these are as follow (The Crimean War photographs by Roger Felton, 1855): Valley of Shadow of Death shows the scattered cannonballs over the ravine path. It has been one of the most famous works by him. The multiple photographs of Sebastopol- the distant views of Cathcart hills and dockyard harbour, the cemeteries, the various photographs from Balaclava showing the life the then- especially the View of Balaklava, from camp of Fusilier Guards and many more are worth mentioning.
A particular photo of Marcus Sparling seated on Roger Fenton’s photographic van is extremely renowned. He took perfect photographs of numerous soldiers, officers and people during war (Crimean War Photographs, 1855)- General Bosquet, Captain Fay, Commander Ballan, Captain Hughes, Brigadier General henry Frederick, Brigadier McPherson, Captain Clement Henry John Higham, Captain Holder, Lieutenant Gaynor etc. He captured the dark side of wars through his camera.
Apart from war photography, Fenton was brilliant with landscape photography as well (from ‘All the Mighty World: photographs of Roger Fenton’). The best examples are Falls at Llugwy at Ponty Pair, Landscape with clouds and Hunford Mills, Surrey. The reclining Odalisque too makes for a great specimen of salted paper print from glass negative.
In the 11 years of active photography and painting, Fenton reached unparalleled heights of success and respect as a photographer. Sadly, his last few years saw no or little success where he had to sell all his equipment. But he shall always be remembered as one of the finest photographers of all time.
How inspirational Roger Fenton is
Roger Fenton inspires one to pursue their dreams. He graduated from the University College in London and chose to study law. But he did not continue it as his real passion was
paintings and photography. It takes a lot of heart to quit the traditional paths and walk on one’s own. Fenton did exactly that. And he was exalted to extreme success and recognition eventually. He inspires us to seek the unseen aspects of a place, happening or person. War which boasts of violence, bravery and victory- Fenton directly linked it to shadows of death through his famous photograph. He showed that war was always about loss and death. He very well captured the emotions and hidden stories behind a scene. His photographs made topics for poetic expressions. There was a perennial source of creativity which this man brimmed over with. His self-portraits are perfect. So are his paintings! He opened the gateway to creative art as profession for his peers as well as generations to come.
Above all, Roger Fenton inspires us to be dedicated. His injuries, illness and extreme discomfort in war area never stopped him from doing his work religiously. He proved that he was more than just the son of a wealthy banker and grandson of a wealthy cotton manufacturer. He chose to make his own name, on a path different than what most of the common men take.
Roger Fenton is one of the finest photographers the world ever witnessed. He is a part of rich historical heritage as he gave us the views and perspective to look at war. He showed how one can master arts, paintings, photography and every other dream pursuit with dedication and faith. He shall always be inspirational to every aspiring photographer and painter.
All the Mighty World: photographs of Roger Fenton. Retrieved from Web on 24 Feb 2013. http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2004/fenton/index.shtm
Alison Gernsheim. “Roger Fenton, photographer of the Crimean War.” 1954. London: Secker & Warburg.
Green-Lewis, Jennifer. “Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism.” (1996). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. ‘Robert Fenton(1819-1869)’ Retrieved from Web on 24 Feb 2013. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rfen/hd_rfen.htm
John Hannavy. Encyclopedia of nineteenth-century photography. 1. 2008. London: Routledge.
Roger Taylor. "Fenton, Roger (1819–1869)". 2006. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
The Crimean War Photographs by Roger Felton. 1855. Retrieved from Web on 24 Feb 2013. http://www.allworldwars.com/Crimean-War-Photographs-by-Roger-Fenton-1855.html