Roger Fenton (English, 1819-1869) was born at Crimble Hall, Lancashire, son of a cotton merchant, banker, and Member of Parliament. Fenton began a career in law in 1839, the same year photography was introduced to the public. In 1843, he married, set aside his law studies, and moved to Paris to take up painting, a decision that transformed his life and provided the artistic context that allowed him to thrive subsequently as a photographer.
In 1851, Fenton was shown waxed paper negatives (a modification of Talbot’s calotype process) by Gustave Le Gray, and noted that “the wax process by which these pictures were produced… superseded in practical employment all the other kinds of prepared paper.” By early 1852 Fenton produced his first photographs that we know of, becoming one of the earliest photographers in Britain to use the waxed paper negative. This same year Fenton formed an alliance with the engineer Charles Blacker Vignoles who had secured the contract to build what was to be the largest suspension bridge in Europe across the River Knieper, at Kiev. Fenton received his first commission from Vignoles who appointed him to photograph the building of the bridge. Once returned from Russia, flush with success and fully confident in his new art, Fenton exhibited some of his Russian views at the Society of Arts in London in December 1852 to wide acclaim. In 1854 Fenton was appointed the first official photographer of the British Museum and made portraits of the Royal family.
Working very little in waxed paper after Russia, Fenton instead chose to master the combination of wet collodion on glass negatives with smoothly textured albumen prints. In 1855, he was commissioned by the Manchester publishing firm of Thomas Agnew to document the war effort in the Crimea where the Russians faced the combined forces of the British, French, and Turkish armies battling the growing threat of Russia’s expanding Black Sea Fleet. Fenton’s undertaking was the first serious and extensive photographic documentation of a war. In October 1855, Agnew mounted an exhibition of nearly three hundred of Fenton’s Crimean photographs in London, bringing them to the public’s attention and creating a demand for portfolios of prints.
After five months in the Crimea, Fenton returned to England a changed man. Over the next five years his photographic output focused on architecture and landscape. In 1858 Fenton created a series of almost fifty photographic studies inspired by Orientalist paintings of the 1840s and 1850s. These Near Eastern life scenes were staged in Fenton’s London studio with Fenton’s circle of friends serving as models. As the 1850s progressed photographic exhibitions and traveling shows proliferated, affording other photographers and the general public alike opportunities to view Fenton’s critically acclaimed prints in the many exhibitions to which he contributed.
Fenton was regarded by his contemporaries as the pre-eminent and most influential photographer working in Britain during the 1850s. After a decade of devoting himself full time to the pleasures of photography and promoting the art to the public, Fenton was to abandon the art and resume his former profession in the law. Fenton’s few landscape and architectural photographs taken in the Lake District in 1860 together with his last known photographs, those of still lifes, constitute the apotheosis of his photographic career. The 1862 International Exhibition in London was the last time Fenton exhibited his work. On 15 October 1862, he publicly announced his retirement from photography and put his entire photographic apparatus up for auction; more significantly, Fenton committed his one thousand large glass negatives to public sale as well.
The exhibition All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852 – 1860 was held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC from 17 October 2004 – 2 January 2005, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles from 1 February – 24 April 2005, at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from 24 May – 21 August 2005, and at Tate Britain, London from 21 September 2005 – 2 January 2006.
Gordon Baldwin, Malcolm Daniel, Sarah Greenough, All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860 (New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004).
Larry J. Schaaf, introduction by Roger Taylor, Sun Pictures Catalogue Fourteen, Roger Fenton, A Family Collection (New York: Hans P. Kraus Jr. Inc., 2005).