Roger Fenton

Roger Fenton Portrait

Roger Fenton. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Roger Fenton (1819-69), English, and one of the most influential and important photographers of the mid-19th century, exhibiting more widely and prolifically than any other of the period. His landscape and architectural studies were highly regarded and often referred to by critics as points of reference to which all other photographers should aspire.

Born at Crimble Hall, near Bury, Lancashire, he was the third son of John Fenton, banker, and MP for Rochdale. He attended University College, London, graduating with a BA in 1840, before going on to study law intermittently for the remainder of the decade. He was called to the Bar in 1851. Despite this formal education, Fenton's real ambition was to become an artist, and using an inheritance from his grandfather he was able to train in both Paris and London, submitting three studies to the Royal Academy between 1848 and 1851. This training and experience distinguished Fenton's career as a photographer and set him apart from many of his contemporaries.

During this period photography emerged from infancy into precocious adolescence, full of hope, ambition and ideals, with Fenton playing a crucial role in determining its character.

He was able to do this in two ways: firstly, through his active involvement with the Photographic Society in London, of which he became Honorary Secretary at its formation in 1853; and, secondly, through the example of his own work that was widely exhibited throughout Britain and Europe. Unlike his contemporaries, Fenton never felt constrained to stick to one distinct photographic genre. Instead he moved freely from portraiture, narrative tableaux, documentary sequences, landscape and topographical studies, and elaborate still-life studies made in his studio. He used large format plates to make impressive studies of architecture, and the stereoscopic camera for more intimate studies in the third dimension. Commercially his work occupied the top end of the market where it was widely sold by leading printsellers, most notably by Thomas Agnew & Sons, of Manchester and London, the firm that underwrote his expedition to photograph the Crimean War in 1855. This extensive body of photographs, made in just four months, contains a number of now iconic images, with the desolate and forbidding Valley of the Shadow of Death regarded as the most eloquent metaphor of warfare. Despite working in a number of genres, Fenton remained consistent in his love of the British landscape and the history it enfolded. Each summer he photographed in locations revered for their ruined abbeys, cathedrals, castles, romantic associations and literary connotations. These are now considered to be among the finest architectural and topographical studies of the 19th century.

In October 1862 he announced his complete retirement from photography and had his apparatus and entire stock of over 1,000 large-format negatives auctioned. With this decisive act he closed a remarkable and influential photographic career.

(Article by Roger Taylor from The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (2005). By permission of Oxford University Press.)