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This article is taken from PN Review 210, Volume 39 Number 4, March - April 2013.Pictures from a Library 7: Roger Fenton
'The Council of War' by Roger Fenton, daybreak, 7th June 1855. Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester.
Known as 'The Council of War', this photograph, one of four recently acquired by the John Rylands Library, portrays the commanders of the British, Turkish and French forces (Lord Raglan, Omar Pasha and General Pelissier) during the Crimean War (1853-56). Before our eyes they plan what would prove to be their successful assault on the Russian fortifications at Mamelon, with souls shimmering 'at the white heat'.
This compelling image forms part of a larger body of work made by Roger Fenton comprising 350 negatives, produced by the 'wet collodion' process on glass plates of various sizes, which were shot using five cameras. Under enemy fire, in temperatures and conditions wholly uncongenial to the practice of photography, they were then printed as salt-paper and albumen photographs in a darkroom inventively fashioned from a converted wine-merchant's wagon. They are the first photographs to have been made by a named photographer, of any nationality, in a theatre of war.
It is a 'puzzling fact that these first war photographs are not very warlike' (Gernsheim). Fenton was certainly exposed to the 'hideous dream' of war and describes its carnage in his letters home. However, his experiences of being 'covered with blood and brains' when others are shot around him don't feature in the work. Instead, he focuses his camera on 'the people and subjects likely to be historically interesting' to make a series of heroic portraits, tableaux and panoramas imbued with the idioms of history painting, the highest genre of Fine Art. Commentators keen to know why are as likely to find answers in mid-nineteenth-century ideas about photography's cultural status as in the old arguments of its technological limitations on the battlefield or its power to offend Victorian taste.
It was while studying art in Paris and London that Fenton began to practise photography. It proved to be the perfect medium for his talents and he soon became one of its 'greatest artists' (Taylor). When the National Census introduced its classification scheme of occupations in 1851 it categorised photographers alongside 'the poet, the historian, the painter, the sculptor, the architect ... [and] professors of science and literature'. As a work of art, Fenton's Crimean War series may therefore fairly be seen as the visual analogue of 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', his achievements ranking no lower than Tennyson's.
This article is taken from PN Review 210, Volume 39 Number 4, March - April 2013.