The past year has seen much discussion concerning ownership of photography. The buying and selling of a digital file or perhaps more accurately a link to a file, but the recent events in Ukraine have presented the medium in a new light or more accurately a very old light, in fact the oldest of lights that take us back to its earliest days.
Roger Fenton’s Crimean War photographs represent one of the earliest systematic attempts to document a war through photography. Fenton, who spent less than four months in the Crimea in 1855 – a war that was fought primarily on a peninsula extending into the Black Sea, barely connected to Ukraine, but connected none the less – produced 360 photographs under trying conditions. However, whilst these photographs present a substantial documentary record of the participants and the landscape of the war, there are no actual combat scenes, nor are there any scenes of the devastating effects of war within his documentation.
Fenton had purchased a former wine merchant’s van and converted it into a mobile darkroom, hired an assistant, and traveled to the Crimea, traveling under royal patronage and with the assistance of the British government.
While Fenton was in the Crimea he had ample opportunity to photograph the horrors of war, but he shied away from such views that would have portrayed the war in what may have been perceived by some within the establishment and the populace as negative and unpatriotic. His intention was not to create a realistic representation of war and there may be several reasons for this, including the limitations of photographic techniques available at the time; inhospitable environmental conditions; and political and commercial concerns. However, today we may see this as an avoidance of the documentarian’s duty, perhaps the images he created would be described as ‘fake news’, maybe as a response to a situation from a contemporary art practice perspective, not news, but art. Whatever, the reasons behind Fenton’s images they give us an insight into a reality, but not the actual reality.
From then to now, photography has been questioned concerning its ability to reflect the truth. The best we can accept is that it portrays a truth, a truth that has been directed by the photographer, their views, their position, their intentions to include and exclude, their ability to create narrative.
Images that have come from Ukraine have been attacked by the Russian state as being false, manipulated and staged. The photographic truth denied by those to whom the evidence is an unconvenient truth. Images that are informing the west of atrocity and which may in the future be used as evidence of war crimes.
The photographic image is as important today as it was in 1855, despite its death as a communicative media being repeatedly proclaimed, the democratisation of the ability to create both the still, and the moving image has lead to the Ukraine War already being the most visually documented in history. The citizen journalist is central to this, but the professional photographers working through news agencies, associations and organisations are providing us with a consistent narrative, underpinned with journalistic understanding.
As I write this article just three weeks into the war, images are being identified as being iconic signposts of the level of atrocity that is occurring. Images created at train stations, on desolate roads, makeshift bridges and in the ruins of a maternity hospital are already being burned into our visual data banks.
I am beginning to identify an aesthetic in these photographs born of the cold Ukrainian light, technical abilities of today’s digital cameras in low-light, and the colour palette created by the indiscriminate bombing of buildings. The scorched earth policy to life made real amongst the mud and snow. Hyper sharp digital images, that reveal every detail of the horror.
Where the analogue documentation of past conflicts has produced grain and blur, digital capture is bringing clarity and often a painterly representation of situations and environments reminiscent of a Breugel painting or a Goya depiction of atrocity. This is a difficult balance for the photographer to maintain. The use of post-production tools including vignette, colour intensity, contrast and colour manipulation have been contentious discussion points since the adoption of digital photography by photo-journalists. Perhaps, too often recently I have seen images from Ukraine described on social media as being ‘painterly’ as if that is a good thing. I am not sure that it is, as the idea of the painter as a reliable creator of truth is hard to accept.
Fenton’s photographic assignment did not prove as lucrative as he had hoped. Sets of his Crimea photographs went on sale in November of 1855, but by December 1856, the publisher, Thomas Agnew & Sons, had disposed of their unsold sets, prints, and negatives at auction. When the Crimean War ended in February 1856, so did the interest in its photographic documentation.
There is no doubt that the interest in all images of conflict fades as the images created pass from news to history. The multitude of images created of any war are always reduced to a series of iconic images that remain in the public consciousness. They are not images to be bought or sold as mere product, they must be respected and revered as important artefacts of a reality that could and sadly does get repeated.
Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com
© Grant Scott 2022
Image: Roger Fenton. The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Ukraine, 1855. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.