Book Review: Shadows of War: Roger Fenton's Photographs of the Crimea 1855

Non-stop imagery from conflict zones surrounds us. It seems that every day, we are bombarded with shaky phone videos and grainy snaps of conflicts and their aftermath from our television and from social media. And yet it is the photograph that has the deepest bite, searing images such as Capa's shot of Americans landing on Omaha beach, Mason's shot of St Paul's Cathedral in the blitz and Don McCullin's image of a shell-shocked Marine into our memory.

Shadows of War: Roger Fenton's Photographs of the Crimea, 1855

Shadows of War: Roger Fenton's Photographs of the Crimea 1855

Royal Collection's latest publication shines a light on one of the early pioneers of war photography, Roger Fenton (1819-69). The book draws on the Royal Collection's holdings of Roger Fenton's Crimean photographs (the world's largest) and accompanies an exhibition at Holyrood Palace. As an album of his work, the book is exemplary. The main section includes 80 or so examples of his work while the appendix features all 340 of the Royal Collection's Fenton images - all beautifully reproduced in rich tones. The book has been designed with Swiss binding (whereby only the rear endpaper is glued to the case), allowing readers to open the book flat and to inspect double-page spreads closely - a thoughtful touch.

Two concise and excellent essays introduce the collection. The first describes the historical context of the war in Crimea, while the second explores Fenton's career, his working practices and his journey through Crimea and the reception of his work. 

Fenton was a respected portrait photographer and was sent to Crimea by Manchester publishers Thomas Agnew and Sons to take portraits of officers and people of interest, with the aim that the painter Thomas Barker would use Fenton’s portraits as the basis for a large oil painting. 

With his five cameras, 700 glass plates and travelling darkroom fashioned out of a wine merchant's van, Fenton toured around Crimea for just three months. There, he took individual portraits but also, images of regimental groups, shots of savaged landscapes and townscapes and scenes of camp life. 

Fenton had an eye for detail. He was also adept at capturing fleeting facial expressions such as the haunted look of Lord Balgonie, an image which is now thought to be the first photographic record of shell-shock. 

Despite being over one hundred years old, Roger Fenton's images have an immediacy and relevance today. This wonderful book underlines Fenton’s pioneering skill as a war photographer and the enduring power of the war photograph. A great read for anyone interested in the history of photography and in Victorian history.

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