by Sarah Lovin
A Brief History of the Crimean War
“Few wars in history reveal greater confusion of purpose or richer unintended consequences than the Crimean War” (Troubletzkoy 32).
The Crimean War was waged by the “allies” (Britain, France, Austria and Sardinia) against Russia. During the war (1853-1856) almost half a million men died, from disease and living conditions as often as from battle. It is generally accepted that the allies declared war on Russia in order to maintain an Eastern Trade route by preventing Russia from gaining control of the Mediterranean Sea. Even so, it is known more for what happened during the war than what caused it or the outcome. Two of the most commonly known events are the charge of the light brigade and Florence Nightingale’s heroic nursing of the wounded. Tennyson’s poem, called simply “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” immortalized the charging of a company of 600 British soldiers into the guns of the Russians due to a misheard command (Evans 29). Florence Nightingale was a single heiress, horrified by the reported conditions of the war, who went to the front lines and began treating soldiers, thus single handedly creating modern nursing (Troubletzkoy 38).
“Their’s not to make reply,/ Their’s not to reason why,/ Their’s but to do and die.”
The 13th Light Dragoons (left), elite British soldiers known for their bravery, were at the forefront of the Charge of the Light Brigade (The Light Dragoons Regimental Association).
The Crimean War is also historically recognized for its many military innovations. It saw the first military use of the telegraph, the light railroad, and the rifle (Troubletzkoy 37). Changes at sea included “iron clad, screw-propelled ships,” submarine navigation, chemical weapons (Russia’s underwater ‘fire’), and a wave suppressor, used to help ships dock during storms (Troubletzkoy 40-1).
Roger Fenton and the Birth of the Photojournalist
Another legacy was left behind, in pictures: the birth of war journalism and wartime photography. Roger Fenton, a British lawyer turned artist, turned photographer, was sent to Crimea to photograph the War in 1955. He was a well known photographer, often commissioned to photograph the Royal family, before he was hired by Thomas Agnew & Sons publishing firm to document the war to the specifications of the British government. He arrived in Crimea in 1855 and stayed for less than 4 months, leaving before the fall of Sevastopol.
Fenton converted an old wine merchant’s van into a mobile darkroom (Woodis). The “photographic van” was necessary to transport all 700 of his glass plates, 5 cameras, chemicals, food and his servant Marcus Sparling. Unfortunately, the large vehicle sometimes made an easy Russian target (Clark).
The Process of Photography in the 1850s:
The process Fenton used was state of the art at the time, wet-collodion plates and salted paper or albumen. The United States’ Library of Congress owns 263 of his salted paper prints. The Library of Congress lists Fenton’s photographs in 2 separate categories, salted paper prints and albumen prints. But the terms salted and albumen prints actually refer to the same technical process for creating the print paper used to create positive images or photographs.
Creating Salted Paper:
1. paper is soaked in salt solution (water solution for plain salted paper, egg white is added for albumen paper) and dried
2. paper is liberally brushed with a silver nitrate solution in low light and dried in darkness
This created the ‘sensitized’ paper which would become the positive image, a photograph (Reilly).
This is the process by which a nineteenth century photographer would create the paper onto which he or she would transfer the original, negative image. In order to create the negative, Roger Fenton and his contemporaries used the wet-collodion method. A lengthier process was needed to create these glass plates.
Creating a wet-collodion plate:
1. pour collodion (a mixture of raw cotton treated with nitric and sulfuric acids and dissolved in ether and alcohol mixed with iodide and bromide) onto a glass plate and coat the entire surface of the plate
2. (in dark room) dip the wet plate into a silver nitrate solution, making it sensitive to light, and wipe off excess with a clean cloth
3. (in darkroom) put the glass plate into a light proof holder
‘Photographing’ the subject
1. insert the holder into the camera (the plate will drip)
2. slide back the holder’s cover, exposing the glass plate, then remove the camera’s lens
3. leave the lens cap off, allowing the plate’s exposure for up to 5 minutes
4. replace the lens cap, replace the holder’s cover and remove the holder from the camera
Creating the Negative
1. (in darkroom) remove plate from the holder, pour the developer (a solution of iron sulfate and acetic acid) onto the plate
2. rinse the plate with water before leaving the darkroom
3. place the plate on a tray of sodium thiosulfate to ‘fix’ the negative
4. wash off the sodium thiosulfate and dry plate
5. varnish the glass plate, protecting the image, by heating varnish and plate over a flame, and cover the surface of the plate with the varnish.
Creating a finished photograph
1. place salted paper in direct contact with the negative and expose to direct sunlight for about 10 minutes.
2. remove, wash in water, dry
3. fix the image with sodium thiosulfate
4. wash and dry a final time (“The Wizard of Photography”)
Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimean War
…in coming to a ravine called the valley of death, the sight passed all imagination: round shot and shell lay like a stream at the bottom of the hollow all the way down, you could not walk without treading upon them…
–Roger Fenton (“Valley of the Shadow of Death”)
The “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” is Roger Fenton’s most well-known piece from the Crimean War photos. It is an iconic picture of a war zone. But throughout Fenton’s collection of 360 photos of the war, not one shows the dead or dying.
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…while personally witnessing the horror of war, Fenton chose not to portray it
The photographs of military grave sites were the closest Fenton came to photographing death.
Roger Fenton, who was in a way the father of modern photojournalism, took a photo wagon to Crimean War with the deliberate aim of taking photographs that would boost domestic morale…(Evans 32).
Below are some examples of his photographs of soldiers.
Despite the static and posed nature of the majority of his photographs, his eye for framing make his photos beautiful.
No one can touch Fenton in landscape…There is such an artistic feeling about the whole of these pictures … that they cannot fail to strike the beholder as being something more than mere photographs.
Journal of the Photographic
Society 1858 (Daniel)
In 1862 Roger Fenton abandoned photography. He sold all of his photography equipment and negatives and returned to a career in law. From only four months on the battlefield, he created a legacy that has not only survived, but remained relevant for over a century and a half (See Larry Burrows, Shooting Vietnam for more information on War photography).
note: All photograph captions are the original listed on the Library of Congress website.
Clark, David. “Roger Fenton-Iconic Photographer.” Amateur Photographer. IPC Media,
2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2014. <http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/how-to/icons-
Daniel, Malcolm. “Roger Fenton (1819–1869)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New
York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd
/rfen/hd_rfen.htm (October 2004)
Evans, Harold. War Stories: Reporting in the Time of Conflict from Crimea to
Iraq.Massachusetts: Bunker Hill, 2003. Print.
James, Reilly M. The Albumen and Salted Paper Book: The History and Practice of
Photographic Printing, 1840-1895. Rochester: Light Impressions Corp, 1980. Albumen
Photographs: History, Science And Preservation. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.
The Light Dragoons Regimental Association: History. N.p., 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.
Stulik, Dunsan C., and Kaplan Art. Salt Print. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation
Inistitute, 2013. PDF file. <http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources
Troubletzkoy, Alexis. The Crimean War: The Cause and Consequences of a Medieval
Conflict Fought in a Modern Age. New York: Caroll and Graf, 2006. Print.
“Valley of the Shadow of Death.” The J. Paul Getty Museum: Collections. N.p., 2014. Web.
30 Apr. 2014. <http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=67114>.
“The Wizard of Photography: the Story of George Eastman and How He Transformed
Photography.” The American Experience. PBS Online/ WGBH, 2000. Web. 30 Apr.
Woodis, Woody. Cataloger. Fenton Crimean War Photographs. PPOC. Library of
Congress. Web. 11 April. 2014.
Figure 1: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eastman/sfeature/wetplate_step1.html
Figure 2: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eastman/sfeature/wetplate_step2.html
Figure 3: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eastman/sfeature/wetplate_step8.html