[Landscape with Clouds], probably 1856
Roger Fenton (British, 1819–1869)
Salted paper print from glass negative; 12 3/8 x 17 7/16 in. (31.4 x 44.3 cm), irregular
The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Anonymous Gift, Curator's Discretionary Grant from The Judith Rothschild Foundation, and Thomas Walther Gift, 1997 (1997.382.35)
Like every other photographer of the period, Fenton faced a difficult technical problem: his photographic chemistry was not equally sensitive to all colors of the spectrum, and, as a result, a negative properly exposed for the landscape left the sky far overexposed. Most photographers found it best simply to paint out the sky on their negatives, preferring to replace the slightly mottled, seemingly dirty atmosphere with one that was perfectly blank and that might consequently read on the print as bright and sunlit. French photographer Gustave Le Gray famously solved the problem in an immensely popular and widely distributed series of seascapes by incorporating dramatic skies printed from a second negative. Fenton, however, took a different tack in this expansive cloudscape—an intensely felt private meditation upon nature, printed once and kept in his personal albums.
Here, Fenton exposed for the sky, letting the land go dark. He pushed the dark surface of man's world—silhouetted trees, barely visible grazing sheep, distant hills and horizon—to the bottom edge of the composition and filled the page with a dreamlike sea of sky with waves of clouds, stretching to infinite distance. If it is impossible to pinpoint precisely when and where this image was made, it is of little consequence, for this is not a mere topographic record—a depiction of a famous gorge or mountain—but rather an expression of man's spiritual connection to nature.