Roger Fenton (British, 18191869)
Salted paper print from glass negative; 11 x 14 5/16 in. (27.9 x 36.4 cm)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2005 (2005.100.67)
In 1853, war broke out between Turkey and Russia over Russia's expansionist policies in the Balkans, still under Turkish rule, and the status of Orthodox minorities within the Ottoman empire. England and France allied themselves with Turkey against Russia in 1854. The allies already controlled the seas, but in order to force a resolution of the conflict, they laid siege to Sebastopol, the capital of the Crimea on the Black Sea. The city held out for nearly a year, falling in September 1855. The next year, the Treaty of Paris effectively contained Russian ambitions in eastern Europe.
The Crimean War was the first large-scale conflict documented by photography. Fenton was commissioned by the publisher Thomas Agnew and Sons to record the theater of the war in photographs to be sold by subscription. The images were intended to reassure the British at homealarmed by reports of a harsh winter, squalid conditions, outbreaks of cholera, and inadequacies in leadershipthat their troops were not suffering undue hardship. Fenton spent four months covering the war and returned with more than 350 negatives. Enjoying official patronage and mindful of the commercial aspect of his mission, he made landscapes, portraits, and scenes of camp life. He did not photograph scenes of actual battle, whose successful depiction in fact lay beyond the technical grasp of the camera, nor did he photograph casualties and suffering, which would have been considered beyond the boundaries of good taste. This view of Balaklava, the narrow harbor used as a landing place by the English, shows the chaotic disruption that was imposed on the placid Crimean village by modern warfare.
Fenton was received by both Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III for private showings of the photographs, which were later exhibited throughout England. Despite its critical success, the series sold poorly; the war was unpopular and would end a few months later. Agnew disposed of the unsold material at public auction in 1856.