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This article is taken from PN Review 265, Volume 48 Number 5, May - June 2022.

Pictures from a Library Stella Halkyard

British army officer and two boys during the Crimean War. Photography taken by Roger Fenton

An analogue photograph’s power is a paradox. Its indexical character, formed as it is from ‘the light that once played on its subjects’ (Marina Warner) conjures the aura of an original and at once affirms the ‘impossible science of the unique being’ (Roland Barthes) at the same time as spawning a ‘plurality of copies’ (Walter Benjamin) through its capacity for reproduction. As these ‘copies of the original’ (Warner) survive in a range of different contexts, the stories they tell can vary. And sometimes, on occasion, these variants are at variance, as in the case shown here.  

Dating from 1855, this image shows a British army officer and two boys during the Crimean War. Taken by Roger Fenton, it is one of the ‘first ever photographs from a war zone then filtering back from the Black Sea’ (Sophie Gordon). Printed by Fenton or his assistant Marcus Sparling, copies of it have been acquired for collections in Britain and America. The Army Museum aptly sees the British army officer as the focus of attention in the image. Resplendent in his military uniform, we learn that Lieutenant Colonel Studholme Brownrigg, CB, was a commander of a battalion of the Grenadier Guards, who later achieved the rank of general. In contrast, the boys who attend him are less well defined. Exposed to our scrutiny, in both a photographic and ethical sense, they hold our gaze engulfed by ‘everyday emblems of struggles for survival in inhospitable conditions’ (Margaret Iverson). Described as nameless ‘Russian youths’, though they look more like children, we are told they were ‘probably drummer boys who were captured in battle’. Boys as young as twelve enlisted in armies from all sides to become lost in a grey zone of trauma, trapped between the unimaginable deeds they had done or been subject to (S. Gayathri and Kumar Vinod).

But if the gaze of these boys ‘captured and stilled’ (Warner) in this photograph speaks of the ‘damaged textures of the world’ (Iverson), it may not be due to their experiences as boy soldiers. For, according to Fenton, in a variation of the story that offers a contradictory alternative to the account offered by the Army Museum, these boys were uprooted from their home and taken captive when they were out nutting in the autumn before the photograph was taken. In a letter to his wife, Fenton records how ‘Alma’ and ‘Inkerman’, now spoils of war and suffering the ignominy of being renamed after the victories of the British and their allies, ‘cried sadly’ to be taken prisoner. And so indelibly impressed within the medium of this salted paper print we witness, centuries too late, their exposure to political power and from an unbridgeable distance passively observe them imprisoned in ‘the cryptic ruins of defunct forms of life’ (Iverson).

‘Colonel Brownrigg and the Russian Boys’ by Roger Fenton, salted paper photograph, 1855.(© The University of Manchester, 2022)

This article is taken from PN Review 265, Volume 48 Number 5, May - June 2022.

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