Fenton was born into an affluent family near Manchester, England, in 1819 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from University College in London in 1840. Shortly thereafter, he went on to study law, and married Grace Maynard in 1843. Despite his education, Fenton’s real interest was in painting, and in 1840 he began to study painting at the studio of Charles Lucy, a member of the Royal Academy in London. In the mid-1840s, Fenton traveled between London and Paris, also studying at the studio of Michel-Martin Drolling. Though he exhibited at the Royal Academy in England, Fenton enjoyed only limited success with his painting. He continued to paint, but returned to his studies in law and began his practice as a solicitor in 1851.
By 1851, Fenton had also begun experimenting with photography, and he returned to Paris to study the new negative-positive collodion process at the studio of Gustave Le Gray. Upon his return to England, Fenton quickly became a prominent spokesperson for the medium and lectured at the first public exhibition of photography in Britain in 1852. That same year, he traveled to Russia to document the construction of a suspension bridge over the Dnieper River in the Ukraine. He also photographed buildings and landscapes in Kiev, St. Petersburg and Moscow, and his images of these exotic locations gained him almost instant fame in England. In 1853 he became one of the founding members of the Photographic Society in London (now the Royal Photographic Society) and served as the organization’s Honorary Secretary for three years. He was soon appointed as the first photographer to the British Museum, and began to photograph the British Royal Family. His work was marketed by leading printsellers, including Thomas Agnew and Sons, of Manchester and London, and his association with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert soon created the opportunity to experiment with even more diverse subject matter.
In response to the growing criticism of the British government’s handling of the Crimean War, Fenton was commissioned by the Agnew firm to produce photographs of the conflict. It was hoped that the photographs would counteract the negative portrayal of the war by the British press. He purchased a wine merchant’s van and converted it to a mobile darkroom, filling the van with cases of photographic equipment and supplies including five cameras and 700 glass plates. To gain the cooperation of the war ministry and commanders in the field, he obtained letters of introduction from Prince Albert. Fenton, along with his equipment and a small staff, sailed to the region with the blessings and assistance of the British government, arriving in March 1855.
The conditions in the Crimea were as inhospitable to photographers as they were to the soldiers. In addition to the difficulties of transporting the fragile glass plates used in the wet collodion process, the plates had to be coated with a thick, sticky light-sensitive solution immediately before the exposure was recorded, and developed immediately afterward. The extreme temperatures of the region were intensified in the confines of the darkroom, and his wagon was often mistaken as a target. Exposure times were so long that battlefield scenes could only be recorded before or after the battle. In addition, Fenton suffered broken ribs while unloading his equipment, and also contracted cholera during his four months in the Crimea.
Fenton’s photographs were the first large-scale photographic documentation of war; therefore there were no precedents for him to follow. The images he produced are not considered objective photojournalism today, nor was it his purpose at the time. His commission was largely an exercise in propaganda, and the images depict a somewhat one-sided view. Fenton also hoped to sell his photographs to the general public, and knew that gruesome, realistic images would not be marketable. Of the more than 350 plates he produced, many are carefully posed groups of officers. Fenton knew the co-operation of the officers was essential to his success. He said, “If I refuse to take them, I get no facilities for conveying my van from one locality to another.” After four months of photographing the war, and ill from cholera, he sold his van and packed his equipment. He returned to England, and the remainder of the war was photographed by James Robertson.
An exhibit of more than 300 of Fenton’s photographs opened at the Water Colour Society’s Pall Mall East establishment in London in September 1855. Thomas Agnew and Sons, Fenton’s publishers, issued 337 photographs on mounts, individually and as parts of sets, but sales were less than anticipated. Few wished to purchase images of a war most people wanted to forget.
Fenton returned to photographing scenic views around Britain and Wales, and produced still-life images and carefully posed Middle-Eastern figures in elaborate settings. Though his work is considered among the finest of his era, Fenton enjoyed little financial reward for his efforts. He completely abandoned photography in 1862, sold all of his equipment and images and returned to his law practice. Fenton died in 1869 at the age of 49.
By Tina Miller, Angelo State University, for IPHF