This is Roger Fenton’s mobile dark room. His Crimean War photographs represent one of the earliest systematic attempts to document a war through the medium of photography. Fenton, who spent fewer than four months in the Crimea (March 8 to June 26, 1855), produced 360 photographs under extremely trying conditions. While 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.
Fenton’s familiar photo of Cornet Wilkins of the 11th Hussars suggests something of the arrogance of British command. For some of the combatants, the commitment to the ideals of honor and glory outweighed their preparation for the realities of war. By 1854 the British army had experienced close to forty years of relative peace. Consequently, there were few battle-hardened veterans among the British forces in the Crimea. During this time, drastic measures were taken to reduce the cost of supporting a standing army. Most of the British army’s commanding officers last saw action during the Napoleonic Wars, in particular, at Waterloo (1815), or had since purchased their commissions. Some British units, at their commanding officers’ expense, adopted flashy, brightly colored uniforms. The officers of these units seemed to enjoy the pomp-and-circumstance of the parade-ground more than they understood the mechanics of war. The troops were, nonetheless, highly disciplined units. Overall, the successful battlefield tactics of the Napoleonic Wars were still the focus of the soldier’s training. While the technology of weaponry was improving, the standard conduct of war was slow to evolve. Recent engagements involving the British in India, Afghanistan, and South Africa and the French in Algeria had done little to alter the typical battle plan, although the French were better prepared as a result of their campaigns in North Africa.
As the war got underway in the Crimea, the Times war correspondent, William Howard Russell, sent home dispatches about the glorious victory at the Battle of the Alma (Sept. 20, 1854). However, the combined allied forces, comprised mainly of French, British, and Turkish troops, were unable to completely subdue a strategically positioned, albeit archaic, Russian army. To the dismay of some, the invading armies failed to immediately pursue the retreating Russian forces. It quickly became evident that the failure to achieve the anticipated swift conclusion to the fighting in the Crimea was not for lack of bravery. Rather, mismanagement and disease, chiefly among the British forces prevented the swift resolution of the war. Casualties in the aftermath of Alma were due more to disease and the treatment of wounds than to mortal wounds suffered during combat. And soon Russell’s reports were tempered with criticism.
As the landscape of war shifted from engagements on open battlefields to the entrenchment of the siege of Sevastopol (Oct. 1854-Sept. 1855), war correspondent William Howard Russell began a relentless attack on the official conduct of the war. His accounts of the difficulties of the soldier’s life in Balaklava struck a responsive chord with readers on the home front. The photo of Russell shows him in a somewhat belligerent pose in semi-military uniform, dressed presumably for the camera.
This photo depicts an Officer of the 57th Regiment resting in his billet.Whether there was an explicit directive from the British government to refrain from photographing views that could be deemed detrimental to the government’s management of the war effort, perhaps in exchange for permission to travel and photograph in the war zone, or whether there was merely an implicit understanding between the government, the publisher, and the photographer is not known.
Fenton photographed the leading figures of the allied armies, documented the care and quality of camp life of the British soldiers, as well as scenes in and around Balaklava, and on the plateau before Sevastopol, but refrained from images of combat or its aftermath. This tactic may have given him access to information and views that were otherwise off-limits to artists and war correspondents, like William Howard Russell, who had become increasingly critical of the British government’s leadership and military officers’ handling of the war. In any case, while personally witnessing the horror of war, Fenton chose not to portray it.Valerie Lloyd says, “…the photographs demand to be ‘read’ for the detailed observations they provide. The Literary Gazette, virtually alone, read the evidence most accurately: […] it is obvious that photographs command a belief in the exactness of their details which no production of the pencil can do….”
It is interesting, however, to make a comparison with the photos of James Robertson whose photos have a grittier, more realistic quality.When Roger Fenton had to leave the Crimea in 1855, Robertson and his partner Felice Beato replaced him in Sevastopol, taking pictures of battlefields, the Balaklava harbor and the army over the next year. It was Robertson and Beato, not Fenton, who documented the actual fall of Sevastopol, the resulting devastation and the final battles that actually ended the war.
The Crimean War gave the pair an experience that would aid them in their documentation of the Indian Mutiny, the Opium War in China in 1860 and the Sudanese colonial wars in 1885 (the latter two only covered by Beato). In these later conflicts, gruesome dead bodies would litter the images–a photographic first not portrayed in the Crimean coverage. Robertson died in 1881.
Generally speaking, Robertson seemed to have less reserve in his choice of subjects. Some are posed in a similar fashion