English photographer Roger Fenton (1819-1869) was commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to photograph the Crimean War during 1855. Photography was in its infancy, but it had progressed beyond Daguerre’s first presentation of the Daguerreotype to the French Academy of Science on January 7, 1839. His process produced only one direct positive, and it required up to 30 minutes of exposure. Frederick Scott Archer (1813-1857) invented the wet collodion process in1848 to produce a negative that could made into several positive images, and it required only two to three seconds of exposure. Collodion was the newly discovered sticky substance of gun cotton in ether, used as a medical dressing. The wet collodion process was used for the next 30 years and allowed photographers to travel and photograph everywhere.
The immediate cause of the Crimean War was the years-long conflict over the rights of British and French Christians and Roman Catholics and the rights of the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church to have access to the Holy sites in Palestine (Ottoman Empire). A second cause was Russia’s desire to expand into the Ottoman Empire, particularly to take the sea port of Constantinople. In 1853, Russia invaded the Ottoman Turkish principalities of Moldavia, Wallachia (Romania), and Varna (Bulgaria). Britain and France declared war in 1854 and bombarded the city of Odessa.
Roger Fenton was a lawyer who became interested in the newly invented photography and founded the Photographic Society of London in 1853. His work for the British Museum and Royal family resulted in his commission to photograph the Crimean War. Fenton arrived in March 1855 as the official campaign photographer. “Cossack Bay, Balaklava” (1855) (now Ukraine) depicts ships of the British fleet and the dock holding pens for cattle. Horses, baskets with supplies, and tents can be seen on the dock. The ship labeled “69” is the Albatross, recently arrived from Constantinople. Aboard was Mary Seacole (1895-1881) who set up a store and hotel for the British with food, drink, and medical supplies. In a letter home, Fenton said the port was like “the emptying of Noah’s ark.”
Fenton and two assistants brought with them from England a traveling darkroom. The photo wagon was a converted wine merchant’s wagon. The wagon was supplied with 700 glass plates and 5 cameras stored in 36 chests, along with tools, water, a stove, and Fenton’s supply of tinned food, trays, and dishes. The wagon was divided into a cooking area, a living and sleeping section, and a darkroom. Large black letters on the van read “photographic van.” Despite the signage the light color of the van made it a target for Russian fire.
In a letter to a friend in England, Fenton wrote, “As soon as the van door was closed to commence the preparation of the plate, perspiration started from every pore, and the sense of relief was great when it was possible to open the door to breathe even the hot air outside.” The wet collodion process required the glass plates to be coated with an iodide solution mixed with collodion and applied to the glass plate. Moving the plate around to coat it could be done outside. In the darkroom, the wet plate was dipped into a solution of silver nitrate and put into a view camera the size of the glass plate. Outside, the plate was exposed by removing the lens cap for 20 seconds to 5 minutes. Back in the darkroom, the plate was removed from the camera and a solution of the liquid fixer, iron sulfate and acetic acid, was used to wash the plate and to fix the image. Water then was used to remove the developer. The plate was dried and stored until ready to be printed. Fenton made a few test prints while in the Crimea, but most of the negatives were transported back to England, and Fenton printed them there.
Allied Encampment on the Plateau before Sevastopol” (1855) is a photograph of the port of Sevastopol in the distance. It was the capital city of the Crimea and the port that held the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet. Fenton’s wet collodion camera limited his ability to take pictures during battle. His mandate from the Crown and the Manchester publisher Agnew & Sons, who financed the venture, stated that Fenton was “intended to illustrate faithfully the scenery of the camps; to display prominent incidents of military life, as well as to perpetuate the portraits of those distinguished officers, English and French, who have taken part in the ever-memorable Siege of Sebastopol.” The Victorians at the time did not want to see the bloody side of war.
Vivandieres or Cantonniere, usually wives of non-commissioned officers, provided soldiers food and drink in addition to their rations. The women were dressed in a female version of the uniform of the regiment in which they worked. The wounded Zouave soldier and the Zouave soldier helping him were part of a Light Infantry regiment of the French Army. A short open front jacket, baggy pants, sash, and fez hat were the unique uniform of Zouave soldiers. Originally from Algeria, they gained in the early 19th Century the reputation as superior soldiers when they fought for the Ottoman rulers. In a letter to his wife, Fenton wrote about the posed photograph: “She is giving assistance to a wounded soldier. It was great fun the soldiers enjoyed it so much & entered so completely into the spirit of the thing.” Florence Nightingale made her reputation as a nurse during the Crimean War. However, she resisted having her picture taken and does not appear in Fenton’s work.
“Lord Balgonie” (1855) is a photograph of Captain Alexander Leslie-Melville, the eldest son of the 8th Earl of Leven, a Scottish peer. Balgonie is standing in front of a sheet Fenton used for a backdrop. Many of Fenton’s photographs were of high-ranking officers posing on their horses or in their tents. Balgonie’s photograph is unusual because he is unkempt, his hair and beard are disheveled, and his stare is unfixed. He returned to Britain and died a few years later, thought to be the result of the hardships he had faced in the war. More recently, this photograph is considered to be the first portrait of shell-shock.
The Battle of Balaclava took place on October 25, 1854. It is better known as the charge of the Light Brigade, a reference to Tennyson’s poem of the same name. Fenton photographed the scene of the famous battle. Under fire at the time, he managed to take photographs of the scene from different points of view. This print shows more cannon balls, suggesting he may have added a few more to the scene. However, the photograph of Marcus Spalding in the photography van probably was taken shorty before they entered the valley. Fenton wrote in a letter that he decided to take a picture of the van before it was destroyed by fire in the valley of death to preserve it as a memory. The title “Valley of the Shadow of Death” is a reference to the 23rd Psalm: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….”
The charge of the Light Brigade was mounted by 670 soldiers. Approximately 100 were killed and160 were wounded. Approximately 375 horses died. Fenton’s photograph, although absent soldiers or horses, was powerful.
lWhen Fenton’s photographs were shown in England, a concerned British public prompted the formation of a committee to look into the conduct of the officers. When the soldiers returned home, the British also learned more about the horrible conditions their soldiers had suffered. Members of the General Staff were criticized for living in relative luxury while the soldiers were suffering. Some were accused of leaving the battle before the end of the campaign. “Major Hallewell, his day’s work done” (1855) was one of Fenton’s photographs that brought this fact to the public’s attention. Fenton’s title “his day’s work done” was perhaps intended to catch the attention of viewers. Major Hallewell, having shed his uniform and weapons, reclines on the ground in front of his large tent, a servant pouring him a drink.
Fenton contracted cholera in June 1855, and returned home. He was allowed to lie on a couch while showing his photographs to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He produced 350 images. The photographs were exhibited to help raise funds for returning soldiers. The exhibition Shadows of War: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimean War, opened at Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh Palace. Fenton photographed architecture and landscapes until 1862, when he sold his equipment and returned to the practice of law. He died in 1869.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.