Roger Fenton

Following on from the look at James Whitmore,in which I highlighted the similarity in the portrait shot of Elvis with a shot of Queen Victoria, this post will be looking into Roger Fenton.

Where do I start with this photographer. I hadn’t heard of him before my studies but his work, creativity social accomplishments have long reaching effects throughout photography even today.

Born in 1819, Fenton, born in Rochdale went on to study Law in London and painting in Paris. This artist training no doubt helped cement his reputation in history as being a ground breaker in portraiture, landscape, architectural and war photography. He established the royal photographic society,saw the rise of photography to the acceptance as fine art at the Manchester Art Teasures Exhibition and eventually retired amid its fall back to being classed as a ‘craft’ or ‘trade’.

The history of his life has been recorded and documented thoroughly, I recommend the Royal Collection Online for extensive online collection of his work The Met Museum for its excellent brief of the impact he had. This is post is to be more focused on individual images, the reasons I feel the still ‘pass’ after 150 years and the lasting impact they had on the medium.

I’ll start on the jumping off point from my last post, Queen Victoria.

Shot on June 30 1854. This image is a hand coloured salted paper print in profile.

I find it so interesting that even in 1854 manual manipulation of the image to capture important or missed details was so painstakingly undertaken. We think of ‘Photoshop’ now as a digital process and its even become a verb. The cotton blue and pinks of the flowers picked out on the Queen and the red velvet of the chair. It reaffirms the wealth of the monarch, rich lustres colours and fabrics, her eyes and lips coloured to show her youth and availability.

By today’s standards the composition is looking a little flat, mainly due to the similarity of all the colours in the sepia tints, Victoria barely ledgeable against the back ground if not for the colouring of her cheeks. I feel this is the disconnect between what could be seen and what is developed, I imagine it wouldn’t be easy for Fenton to go back and ask for more time as the first sitting didn’t work out perfectly.

The reasons this image has stuck with me is from my experience the profile shot is so seldom used, even today. The royal portraits we see are often carbon copy compositions in different styles, one of royalty sitting proud, open, slightly tilted body with eyes straight to viewer. The pose we see here is intimate, a little delicate a little voyeurish. I can imagine Victoria getting ready in front of a dressing table looking deeply into the mirror and contemplating, anxious of stepping out, also isolated and alone in a cold room.

At this time Victoria was married for 14 years and had been in rule for almost 20 years. Is this a sign of relaxing in private or a sign that the position was as isolating as I imagine it could be, and that responsibility was taking its toll?

Fenton was also a well recognised Landscape Photographer, again setting pioneering standards for the artwork and medium.

The images above show some of the techniques we learn early on in our photography journey, showing how Fenton had captured these principles early in the life of photography and no doubt taking cues from his art training.

The main compositional choices I see amongst his work would be the framing and what’s commonly known as the ‘Rule of Thirds’. We can see how Fenton used structures to encircle subjects, focusing our attention, giving depth, scale and context to the image. Coupled with the use of leading lines Fenton has created images that if not for the lack of colour and image clarity would fit right in alongside more modern images.

In the Arch of the Bridge at Maidenhead we see a small figure to the right of the image, on first glance it could be the bridge is mistaken for a fairly small canal crossing but with the inclusion of the figure this is were we see the scale of the arch. The use of the fence to lead from centre frame and up into the individual helps highlight this, it also helps us see the individual looking back out to the focus of the framing, drawing us with him, letting us see the image from the subjects point of view. Stepping back from the image we can see how the arch marks the boundary of the upper third and the individual marks the end of the lower third, any deviation of the camera angle would have lead to having too much sky or river and creating empty space which in this case would have served no purpose. Personally I may have chosen to crop some of the head room from the image to help improve balance a little more, and possibly would have aimed to shot the image with the camera a little further right bringing the length of the arch a little more into context and placing the fence a little more centrally, mainly this is I tend to think in a slightly wider aspect ratio and with modern lenses we are able to balance capturing the whole scene with being able to get a little closer to do so.

No discussion about Roger Fenton would be complete without the mention of the Crimea War.

Fenton captured several hundred images of the Crimean War, landscape, portrait, staged and candid. He is credited with being one of the first to bring the true effects and impact of war to the attention of the general public whilst also being chastised for the potential manipulation of objects and subjects within his images. Regardless of this ‘selective’ image construction and capture, I feel his intent was to provide an insight to war. The portrait shown above shows Sergeant Thomas Dawson who lost his arm in the Battle of Inkerman November 1854, poignantly posed with his daughter gently clutching his lapel. The image has been refined using ink, another example of how image manipulation post processing has been prevalent since the inception of photography. Overall my opinion is that this is a masterclass in portrait photography, subtle in conveying the message that war leaves victims and survivors, that behind the man is a family. It’s lit and framed like a traditional painted portrait, but unlike a painting I feel a deeper connection with the subjects. I find that photography lends itself a certain amount of ‘truth’ more akin to a document with official weight and reality. I suppose this is due to how images are used to support news stories, reference material and personal recording of life events etc.

I also really enjoy the self portrait shown here, whimsical in nature, Fenton living out his own fantasies possibly. We see his backdrop and props in the image which is shot off to the side, in a way revealing the fact its a composed image, is this his way of highlighting the construction of the facade or just a compositional choice to fit in the long rifle? I do however prefer to think it is to identify this as a decision on his part to highlight it as a self portrait, that brings an integrity to his role of photographer, as if he’s saying ‘here’s a peek behind the curtain’.

Bringing this post to a close I have selected three images from Fenton’s work. Two shown above are a look at his capturing of Eastern cultures in a curated fashion. Clearly posed and shot in a studio setting Fenton has tried to capture the relationships between men and women, and the difference between east and west.

Surrounded by textiles, pottery and jewellery we see a classical pose, laid amongst rich fabrics and looking whilst fully off frame. The interest comes mainly from the unusual, for the time, shapes and textures. I don’t feel a great connection to the subject beyond the surface but I do feel it is a excellent example of Fenton taking his art background and transposing it to this new medium. I also see it as part of the validation of photography as a fine art. Using the techniques and composition of painting to draw in the sceptics and critics of the time.

The image of ‘Pasha and Bayadère’ is a lot more engaging and provocative in comparison. Using similar surroundings and props, Fenton has created a more intimate moment. Is it a trio of performers working together to create entertainment or art, is it a Sex Worker plying her trade. I imagine for a reserved 1850’s audience this image would be on the border of bad taste, idea of publicly displaying sensuality even though the act itself could be purely innocent entertainment or practice. Seeing the Hookah in the midst of the trio leads me to believe this is Fenton’s interpretation of a scene he has seen of performance in a communal and social environment. Either way I find the light falling down and over the performer is such perfect composition and that the overall image shows so much of the world he is trying to capture it is hard not to look deeply into image.

This final image I have chosen as it remind me of the Queen Victoria image that drew me into Fenton’s work originally. For all accomplishments its easy to think that Fenton created perfect images every time he captured something but, I find that even among the work selected here there are short comings.

Does he truly understand his subject? Does he truly understand what makes his images work? Does it matter that he composes images to create the scene he wants?

For me I think the answer is, it doesn’t matter. Roger Fenton was working at a time when photography was in its infancy, it wasn’t taken seriously as an art medium, it was large and difficult equipment that was expensive to run. What matters is that in his vast work you consistently see technically competent work, it consistently captures subjects and topics that were unknown and unseen at the time and to chastise an artist for potentially manipulating images to suit their vision denies the very core of art, that it is the artists impression or interpretation presented to contextualise and communicate and idea or subject to others from a different point of view.

I find, in this final image, an artist dedicated to improving and developing his skills and vision. To photograph a sculpture is to convey some other artists message, here Fenton challenges that by again using a profile portrait but taking the available light to change the way we see the sculpture, he’s captured a moment that no doubt can only occur when you have the right conditions to see it. It’s a concept for a particular style he has visited 4 years previously with Queen Victoria but has improved on that idea with better framing, better exposure and improved lighting, I would have loved to see this level of craft when he photographed Victoria.

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