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Roger Fenton (March 20, 1819 – August 8, 1869) was a British pioneer photographer, one of the first war photographers.
First years and training
Roger Fenton was born in Heywood (county of Lancashire, United Kingdom). His grandfather was a wealthy cotton farmer from Lancashire and a banker, and his father a banker and member of Parliament. Fenton was the fourth of seven children of his father’s first marriage, who had ten more of his second wife.
In 1838 Fenton attended University College London where he graduated in 1840 with a degree in art, having studied English, mathematics, literature and logic. In 1841, he began to study law, evidently sporadically, since he did not manage to be a lawyer until 1847, partly because he had been interested in studying painting.
In Yorkshire in 1843 Fenton married Grace Elizabeth Maynard, presumably after his first trip to Paris (his passport was given to him in 1842) where he may have studied painting briefly in Paul Delaroche’s studio. When he registered as a copyist at the Louvre in 1844 he said that his teacher was the portrait painter and history painter Michel Martin Drolling, who taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but the name of Fenton does not appear in the archives of that school. By the year 1847 Fenton had returned to London where he continued to study painting under the tutelage of the history painter Charles Lucy, who became his friend and with whom, beginning in 1850, he served on the board of the North London School of Drawing and Modeling . In 1849, 1850, and 1851 he exhibited paintings at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy.
Career as a photographer
Fenton visited the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in London in 1851 and was impressed by the photographs displayed there. Then he visited Paris, to learn the process of calotype on waxed paper, most likely with Gustave Le Gray. By 1852 he had exhibited photographs in England, and traveled to Kiev, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, making calotypes there, and photographing views and architecture around Great Britain. Published a public call for the establishment of a photographic society.
In 1852, during the course of an expedition to Kiev to document the construction of a bridge, engineering works of great importance at the time, making the first known photographs of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
He exhibited his photographs in London and his fame grew enormously, and even the English royal family talked about him, becoming the photographer of the court. In 1853 he founded the Photographic Society of London, which would become the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain.
In 1854 he was hired by the British Museum to photograph part of his collection – thus being the first photographer regularly employed by a museum.
In 1855 Fenton went to the Crimean War commissioned by editor Thomas Agnew to photograph the troops, with a photo assistant Marcus Sparling, a servant and a large baggage. This expedition was his greatest success. It was financed by the State in exchange for not showing the horrors caused by the wars, so that the relatives of the soldiers and the citizens did not become demoralized. It was a very hard job for Fenton because due to the heat, part of the photographic material used (wet collodion) became inflamed, and forced the soldiers to remain in poses for several seconds despite the high temperatures. Despite the adverse weather, fracturing several ribs and suffering cholera, he managed to make 350 useful large-format negatives. An exhibition of 312 photos was held immediately in London. Sales were not as high as I expected, possibly because the war was over. According to Susan Sontag, in his book Before the Pain of Others (2003), Fenton was sent to the Crimean War as the first official war photographer at the insistence of Prince Albert. The photographs produced would be used to counteract the general aversion of the British people to an unpopular war, and to compensate for the anti-war stories of The Times. The photographs were converted into xylographic plates and published in the less critical Illustrated London News as well as in the form of an album, and were shown in a gallery. The result of this expedition was a deliberately candid vision of the war, without dead, wounded or mutilated, where the high commands are seen as great men and the soldiers in breaks or entertainments.
Due to the size and cumbersome nature of the photographic equipment, Fenton was limited in his choice of motives. In addition, due to the non-photosensitive material of his time, he was only able to produce photographs of static objects, mostly posed photographs. But he also photographed the landscape, including an area near the place where the Light Brigade was ambushed – famous for Tennyson’s poem “The Light Brigade’s Charge” – called “The Valley of Death”; however, Fenton’s photographs were taken in the similarly named valley “The Valley of the Shadow of Death.” Fenton took two photographs of this area: one with several cannonballs on the road, the other (shown above) with an empty road. It has been recently determined that the photo without the cannonballs was taken first. However, experts do not agree on who put the cannonballs on the road in the second image – were they deliberately placed on the road by Fenton to enhance the image, or were there soldiers in the process of driving them away to return? to use them?
Several photographs of Fenton, including the two versions of the “Valley of the Shadow of Death”, are published in The Ultimate Spectacle: A Visual History of the Crimean War (The ultimate show: a visual history of the Crimean War ) by Ulrich Keller (ISBN 90-5700-569-7) (2001).
In 1858 Fenton did gender work in his studio, based on imaginative romantic ideas about Muslim life, like the seated Odalisque, using friends and models who were not always convincing in their roles.
Fenton is considered the first war photographer for his work during the Crimean War, for which he used a mobile studio called a “photographic van”. In recognition of the importance of his photography, Fenton’s photos of the Crimean War were included in the collection, 100 photos that changed the world, of Life magazine.
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