Icons of Photography: Roger Fenton

Roger Fenton was born on March 28, 1819, into northern wealth – a son of that economic power train of the Industrial Revolution, the cotton trade. Fitting then that he found his way from his first avocation, painting – he wasn’t very good – to the industrial revolution’s most notable bequest to art, the camera.

He made photography’s first great image – Valley of the Shadow of Death. It’s a barren, terror-swept landscape, empty as, well, as empty as death. Look at it. Pause, take a breath, look again. See the scattering of cannonballs. Start counting them. Pause, take another breath. A new aesthetic.

It’s also not what it seems. It’s not the valley in which the Light Brigade charged and died but an adjacent one. It’s also possible Fenton himself placed the cannonballs there – a notion recently explored with his usual acuity by that great forensic analyst of photography, Errol Morris. Pause, take another breath. New aesthetics: new problematics. But, still: this was the moment photography separated itself from painting.

Now, for once, I must declare a personal interest. I live a few hundred yards from Fenton’s north London house. As did David Bailey who admired him so much he named his son Fenton.

So I think of him as the local photographer made good, very good. Aesthetics and even meaning get put aside for the moment and give way to childish wonder as I contemplate his images of the paths and grass I walk daily. Of the pictures that came after him, too, taken on the same paths and grass, with the same cast iron street lamps in the background. I see Bill Brandt’s 1963 picture of Francis Bacon, looking up Primrose Hill in the glooming and Gered Mankiewicz’s 1966 picture of the Rolling Stones at dawn and Michael Spencer Jones 1995 photograph of a young woman in a picture frame, taken for the cover of the Oasis single, Wonderwall. A dialogue across more than a century, instigated by Fenton.

More than anything, though, I think of another picture Fenton took, of his local church, St Mark’s, being built. It’s still there and looks like it’s been there forever. But Fenton captured it unsteepled, not much more than a shell, half a shell even, and shuttered against thievery by a wooden palisade thick-papered with advertisements, for insurance, property and furniture. One of his first photographs, its content and composition are radical, novel, brave, impeccable even. Right from the start, the future was his.

He didn’t get there right away, though. First, he studied law and then went to Paris, to become a painter. He had pictures in the annual Royal Academy exhibitions. Then, in 1851, he took a trip to Hyde Park and the Great Exhibition, the event which did so much to kick Britain into lead place in the creation of the modern scientific, technical world. There, he saw photography for the first time. Or, more likely, saw it for the first time. It had been around a few years. Daguerre’s one-shot method – think 19th-century Polaroids – was patented in 1839. By the early 1850s, though, negative-to-print processes had arrived – the paper-based calotype and the soon-dominant glass plate method (wet collodion).

Seeing and grasping his future, Fenton returned to Paris – then centre of the photographic universe – to learn how to make photographs, most likely from Gustave Le Gray, who refined the calotype process.

Fenton’s career only lasted eight years but it was a fully packed one. By 1852, he had shown his photographs in public and started his travels around Europe and Britain. He took what were probably the first photographic images made in Russia, of the Kremlin, St Petersburg and Kiev. Everywhere he went, he took with him his horse-drawn van – a mobile photography lab.

He set up what was to become the Royal Photographic Society. He took pictures of Windsor Castle, Queen Victoria and her little princes and princesses. He was appointed official photographer of the British Museum. Using a very large format camera (14x18in), he set about photographing the country’s major churches – a priority that is odd to the modern eye but which invites a modern question. If photography were only invented now, what we would choose to photograph? (I don’t think it would be Britain’s major churches.)

In 1855, he went to war, in the Crimea where Turkey, Britain and France were taking on Russia. There, he took the pictures that would be the first outline of the boundaries and rules of reportage in general and war photography in particular – though there is no actual death or gruesomeness in any of his pictures. Unlike subsequent war reportage, though, its concerns were not with peace or outrage or anything of that socially concerned kind.

It was essentially a money-making venture. Not that it paid off. Back in London, Fenton put sets of his prints up for sale, under the rubric Photographs Taken Under The Patronage Of Her Majesty The Queen In The Crimea by Roger Fenton Esq. But they didn’t shift, essentially because public opinion was so against the war. (Another modern parallel: photobooks of our eastern wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have found it no easier to attract buyers.)

He also took sharp-eyed portraits, and made succulent still-lifes and landscapes. His skills and artistry were recognised early. In 1858, the Journal of the Photographic Society commented: ‘There is such an artistic feeling about the whole of these pictures that they cannot fail to strike the beholder as being something more than mere photographs.’

In 1860, he made what may well be the first modernist image, a precursor of Warholian democracy – The Queen’s Target. It’s a photograph of just that, Victoria’s target-shooting card with one bullet hole, close to the centre. (It was probably a setup. The camera regularly lies when it feels the need or the wish to.)

Yet, all too soon, he had given up photography. The exact reasons have never became fully clear but, most likely, he realised fashions in photography were already moving on, making it financially unviable for him. A familiar story for many photographers, great ones even. While many others stick with the game, curdling into penury and bitterness, he just walked. He sold his equipment and retired into the law and affluent obscurity.

He died, aged 50, on August 8, 1869, at home in Potter’s Bar.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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