Into the Valley of Death

By LIZ HAGER

Timothy O'Sullivan—Field where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg

Timothy O’Sullivan, “Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg,” 1863, albumen photograph bound into Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Some claim that the photographs attributed (and in many cases mis-attributed) to Matthew Brady are the reason the Civil War is more popular than the Revolutionary War in the American imagination. In fact, nearly 150 years later, the in situ portraits of weary-looking officers, the shots of battlefield formations, and the unvarnished records of the post-battle carnage still bring the immediacy of that war to us in a way that illustration techniques cannot.   Although many consider Brady to be the first “photo-journalist,” he wasn’t actually the first to photograph war. That distinction belongs to Roger Fenton (1819-1869), British chronicler of the Crimean War. During his short 11-year career as a photographer, Fenton photographed all kinds of subjects—portraits, landscapes, the monuments of ancient civilizations. However, it is the collection of 350 “salt-paper” photographs, taken during a brief 3-month period in and around the encampments at Balaklava, for which Fenton is best remembered.

Roger Fenton, Into the Shadow of the Valley of Death,1855, salt-paper photograph (courtesy Library of Congress). Note the cannonballs strewn in the road. This is one of two prints of the same scene—one with, one without cannonballs. Apparently, the one without was taken first. Fenton wouldn’t be the last war photographer to doctor a scene.

By the time Fenton arrived in camp in the spring of 1855, the infamous slaughter of the British cavalry brigades had already been immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his “The Charge of the Light Brigade” poem. Still, the Crimean conflict was in full swing and one imagines that Fenton had ample opportunity to record the action of battle and consequences wrought by the war. What kept him from reporting on this angle of the war?

Despite technical advances made in the wake of Louis Daguerre‘s introduction of his eponymous plate-process, by 1855, plein air photography was still no trivial matter. Transporting heavy equipment required large teams of porters. Fenton himself set sail to the Crimea with more than 30 crates of materials, as well as a portable tinker’s cart, which he used as a portable darkroom. Additionally, chemicals in the service of photography were fickle and could prove particularly ruinous in the wilderness.  (John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Grand Canyon expedition comes to mind.) Certainly Fenton would have had good technical reasons not to go out in the field. But Brady and others were using the same cumbersome equipment a half a decade later. Perhaps Brady was just a more fearless character, a man who had less qualms about the dangers of setting up shop on the battlefield. Popular legend has it that he got so close to the action at the First Battle of Bull Run he was almost captured. Even Brady, though, backed off the battlefield later in the war, sending assistants like Timothy O’Sullivan to do that more dangerous work.

Roger Fenton, Major Halford, 5th Dragoon Guards, 1855, salt-paper photograph (courtesy Library of Congress). A cavalryman not unlike those of the 4th Dragoon Guards, who met death during the infamous charge into “the Valley of Death.”

Gross military incompetence was a hallmark of the Crimean War. As a result, many thousands of soldiers died, perhaps unnecessarily. Additionally, it was the first war to make tactical use of trenches and blind artillery fire, and troops must have found themselves in horrific situations similar to those of WW1. Although the military deployed rifles with increased range, soldiers could still expect to find themselves in close conflict with the enemy. As tank technology was still to be invented, the cavalry was the primary arm of the forward thrust of military action. Fenton’s photographs depict war as if it were a gentlemanly, Victorian-era game; soldiers seem to be preparing for a dress parade.  One cavalryman after another with his steed strikes a contrived and noble pose, though surely even most experienced among them must have been struggling with mind-numbing terror, well aware that a fate similar to that of the “light brigades” might well await each of them.

It turns out that Fenton, as well as his subjects, was a pawn in the Great Game.  The photographer was sent to the Crimea by the British Government, anxious to shore up perceptions of the very unpopular war. He arrived at the military camps under the strictest of orders —”No dead bodies.”

Does the omission of the darker side of war make Fenton any less a war photographer?   Stay tuned.

Wider Connections

Roger Fenton at the Library of Congress

Charge of the Light Brigade

Crimean War

John Wesley Powell photographs

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