Fenton’s Ideal World

New Exhibit Portrays Photographer’s Romantic Vision

Posted October 18, 2004 at 3:12pm

The 19th century British photographer Roger Fenton was a master of illusion. Through his lens, the Crimean War was largely a bloodless affair, the bucolic Welsh countryside untouched by modernity, and Fenton himself a dead ringer for a Turkish pasha.

Fenton was, after all, a Victorian of the first order: wealthy and nationalistic with a patriotic sense of propriety. And his photographs, nearly 100 of which are now on view at the National Gallery of Art, do little to upset his sense of idyllic romanticism.

But while his pictures — of architecture, the Royal Family, rushing streams, undulant landscapes and museum artifacts — hardly aimed to rock the proverbial boat, they still pullulate with a refined mystique.

The show’s title, “All the Mighty World,” which takes its name from a phrase in a poem by William Wordsworth praising the temporal aesthetic, aptly captures the spirit of the exhibit. Indeed, Fenton, whom co-curator Sarah Greenough credits with helping transform photography in Britain from the purview of “gentlemen amateurs” and “commercial hacks” into high art, approached the task of memorializing this world with ferocious intensity, tackling his decidedly familiar subjects from new perspectives.

Fenton’s quest took him to Russia, combat zones and the far reaches of the United Kingdom proper. He co-founded the Photographic Society, today the Royal Photographic Society. He undertook an ambitious project to visually record much of the collection of the British Museum. And he did it all in a span of just 11 years and at a time when photography, which didn’t originate until 1839, was only beginning to come into its own as a serious artistic endeavor.

Fenton, who initially studied law, began his artistic training as a painter, and the photographs reflect this influence. The salted paper prints used for many of his works accentuate the painterly quality of the frames, often producing a grainy, nearly impressionistic effect. Standouts include shots of a mist-infused Dnieper River and an equally elegiac photo of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, spires capped with scaffolding, as seen from the Waterloo Bridge.

Like his mentor, the French photographer Gustave Le Gray, Fenton was consumed by the idea of recording both the triumphs and “decaying monuments of man’s genius and pride.”

Accordingly, Fenton photographed more than his share of cathedrals, manor houses, castles and abbeys.

Fenton, echoing a Victorian obsession with staging tableaux, frequently arranged figures (often relatives) enigmatically around these architectural achievements.

When he does, the resulting pictures project all the gothic mystery of a tale by Edgar Allan Poe. There are deeper stories here, one feels certain, though the subtext is deliciously elusive.

In one, a small girl stares sullenly at the camera while a man invoking the impishness of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka peeks through a cloister opening. In another, just a ghostly hint of the backside of a man can be seen disappearing inside a cathedral. Meanwhile, a gathering of top-hatted gentlemen on the grounds of Windsor Castle appears as if it was snapped at the moment the group abruptly turned to face some unseen intrusion. The photo’s surrealistic tone is further enhanced by a quartet of bearskin-wearing guards, one of which is on the verge of evanescing into thin air.

Today, Fenton, if remembered at all, is usually associated with his photos of the Crimean War, an ill-fated imbroglio that pitted England, France and Turkey against Russia in the mid-1850s.

The Crimean photographs — Fenton took 350 in all, though only a handful are included here — tend toward the tame. As one of the very first war photographers, Fenton, who in Plimptonesque fashion even participated in a battle, did not stray from the mores of the day. He made little effort to portray the vagaries of the conflict. Nor did he have much interest in recording the images of the enlisted men. Instead, there are generals confidently posed in full dress regalia, and rather benign camp scenes.

And then there is “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” Fenton’s masterpiece and a near-perfect picture of an expanse of warfare detritus. It is T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land,” writ large: a barren field stretching into an empty horizon cut only by a path crowded with dormant cannonballs.

Just as Fenton largely shied away from portraying the horrors of war, he also turned a blind eye to the onslaught of the Machine Age. Only one of his photographs of the Welsh countryside shows a hint of the industry, which often lay just outside the frame of his photos. Instead, there are Arcadian snapshots aplenty, untouched by contemporary life and more than suitable for any tourist’s picture postcard. Fenton’s romantic England, it seems, would endure forever — if only in an albumen silver print.

This sense of artifice continues in his Orientalist series, which capture scenes of the “exotic” Near East, as depicted by Fenton, his family and friends in his London studio. In addition to the distinctly European visages, the visibility of ceiling strings (in one print) holding the “bayadère’s” hands in place succeeds in breaking whatever spell Fenton may have been attempting to cast.

Meanwhile, a group of Delacroix-inspired still lifes produced toward the end of his career, which depict flowers, fruit, and dead game in all their hideous realism, err to the opposite extreme.

After the predominantly conventional diet of the preceding more than seven dozen prints, the show concludes on a rather jarring note with a pair of startlingly edgy, minimalist photographs.

The first of these, “The Long Walk,” captures two figures in the foreground, perhaps a mother and daughter, on the verge of embarking on a sort of Led Zeppelin-esque stairway to heaven through an otherwise patently bourgeoisie setting of foliage and greenery.

Directly adjacent to this photo is “The Queen’s Target,” a closeup of Queen Victoria’s near bull’s-eye taken at the inauguration of the National Rifle Association in 1860. So abstractly modern, the image invokes Pop artist Jasper Johns’ “Target” collages of a century hence.

Had Fenton continued in this vein, one wonders to what heights he might have ascended, or in what direction he might have taken his craft. Instead, two years after these pictures were produced, Fenton abruptly abandoned the medium. By then, his stock with the critics was plummeting, the competition outpacing him and his Photographic Society in turmoil. Moreover, the earlier death of his only son, Anthony Maynard, in the spring of 1860, had plunged him into despair.

Although any of these developments could explain the reasoning behind his decision to hang up his camera, Greenough has another hypothesis for why Fenton, who excelled at portraying his beloved homeland in idealistic terms, opted for a premature retirement.

“He didn’t want to sully [his work] with anything less than perfect,” she said.

“All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860” is on view in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building through Jan. 2, 2005. For more information about exhibit-related activities, go to www.nga.gov.