Before taking up the camera, Roger Fenton studied law in London and painting in Paris. He traveled to Russia in 1852 and photographed the landmarks of Kiev and Moscow; founded the Photographic Society (later designated the Royal Photographic Society) in 1853; and was appointed the first official photographer of the British Museum in 1854. Fenton achieved widespread recognition for his photographs of the Crimean War in 1855, including portraits of confident commanders and shell-shocked soldiers, scenes of Balaklava Harbor and of the allied camps, and views of the terrain of battle. Among the most understated but moving of these is Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), a barren landscape littered with cannonballs.
Fenton's greatest artistic achievement, however, came in the realms of landscape and architectural photography. He traveled extensively throughout England, Wales, and Scotland, photographing picturesque and sublime aspects of the countryside. The most compelling of these views, works such as Landscape with Clouds and Wharfe and Pool below the Strid (1856 and 1854, both The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), call to mind cloud studies by Constable and explorations of light and atmosphere by Turner. They are intensely felt meditations on the observable world, infused with a reverence for nature and a delight in sensory experience.
As a photographer of architecture, too, Fenton was without parallel among his countrymen. He assigned himself the task of photographing the major churches and abbeys of Great Britain and, working in a format as large as 14 x 18 inches, wedded perfect technique with an unerring ability to choose the precise vantage point and lighting conditions that would best render the smallest details of architecture, convey a sense of monumentality, and imbue his pictures with a Romantic spirit. His subjects included the gothic cathedrals of Salisbury, Wells, Lincoln, and Lichfield; Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and the British Museum; and the ruined abbeys of Rievaulx, Fountains, Roslin, and Lindisfarne. Of particular note are four views of Windsor Castle on loan from The Royal Collection and fourteen prints from the collections of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.
Impressed by his architectural and landscape photographs, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert invited Fenton to photograph their children, a task he accomplished with great sensitivity. Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (1856) is a surprisingly intimate portrait of a brooding young royal on the grounds of Balmoral Castle. The print, one of twenty-four on loan from the Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford, England, is an exceptionally dark and rich salted paper print that, like most in the exhibition, is in unusually superb condition.
Perhaps inspired by the experience of traveling through Constantinople en route to Balaklava, or perhaps simply sharing the mid-nineteenth-century vogue for all things exotic, Fenton produced a theatrical suite of Orientalist compositions during the summer of 1858—costume pieces such as Pasha and Bayadere (J. Paul Getty Museum) and Nubian Water Carrier (National Museum of Photography, Film & Television) that strove for high art rather than documentation and that were, in a sense, an antidote to the harsh realities that Fenton had recorded in the Crimea.
In 1862, after a final series of photographs—a remarkable group of lush still lifes of fruit, flowers, and objets d'art—and for reasons both personal and professional, Fenton sold his equipment and negatives, resigned from the Royal Photographic Society, and returned to the practice of law. In the course of a single decade, Fenton had played a pivotal role, by advocacy and example, in demonstrating that photography could rival drawing and painting not only as a means of conveying information, but also as a medium of visual delight and powerful expression.