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Fighting Heat, Dust, and Glare: Roger Fenton and the first photographic documentation during the Crimean War

By Courtney Reed

In 1950 photography collector Helmut Gernsheim managed to track down a descendant of photographer Roger Fenton and scored one of the greatest coups of his career: Fenton’s own complete set of Crimean War photographs for a grand total of £50. After closing the deal in the owner’s Farnborough garage, Gernsheim loaded the prints into the trunk of his car and referred to the purchase as “quite a haul.” In 1954, Gernsheim published a book about the 360 mounted salt print photographs of the Crimea that he had purchased from Fenton’s heir.

The Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856, was fought mainly on the Crimean Peninsula and was where Florence Nightengale pioneered modern nursing practices. France allied with Turkey and Britain against the Russian Empire in a dispute over the declining Ottoman Empire territories and the authority of the Roman Catholic Church over the Russian Orthodox Church in Palestine.

According to Gernsheim, what made the Crimean War so interesting was that “in many respects, it was the last of the old wars, with dandy officers, purchasable commissions and mortar balls; in others, it is the first of modern war, with telegraphic communication, supply railway, efficient nursing and field kitchen and the first to be covered by photographers and newspaper reporters.”

Fenton took up photography in 1851, and by 1852 he was instrumental in founding the Photographic Society of London. For the next few years, Fenton photographed everything from items in the British Museum to the Royal Family.

From 1854 to 1855, under the patronage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Fenton photographed in the Crimea, where Great Britain was fighting an unpopular war against the Russians. In a joint venture between the Crown and the Manchester publisher Agnew & Sons, Fenton said that the images from his photographic campaign were “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.”

Though the purpose of Fenton’s images was to realistically exhibit the Crimean War to the British public, Victorian standards discouraged Fenton from photographing the ghastly ravages of war.

Another restriction was the extended exposure times of the wet collodion process, which made photographing active combat impossible. Thus, Fenton relied upon posed images of soldiers and views of a battle’s destructive aftermath to convey the atmosphere of war.

Taking 36 cases of photography equipment, Fenton used a large van as a home base. Fenton equipped the pantechnicon with a cooking area, a living/sleeping area, and a dark room. Despite its utility, the van’s cumbersome size and light color made it an easy target for the Russians. Consequently, the van came under fire several times.

Painted on the van, in large black letters, were the words “photographic van.” As pictures were rare at the time, people inevitably flocked to the van requesting photographs to send home.

In addition to dealing with warfare, crowds, and the technical parameters of collodion photography, the intense heat and dusty terrain further complicated snapping photographs in the Crimea.

“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,” Fenton wrote in a letter that was quoted in Gernsheim’s book Roger Fenton: Photographer of the Crimean War:  His Photographs and his Letters from the Crimea.

Fenton managed to avoid the many dangers of being on location in the Crimea, but by June 1855, Fenton’s luck ran out, and he contracted cholera. He started his journey home and had recovered by the time he reached England. There, he presented his photographs in private audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and was even allowed to lie on the couch due to his delicate condition.

Despite the countless challenges, Fenton managed to produce the first photographic documentation of war in his more than 350 images of the Crimea.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.