Fenton, Roger

British (1819-1869)


Roger Fenton followed several vocational paths before becoming a photographer. He obtained a degree in law and soliciting between 1841 and 1847, but his studies proceeded slowly because he was pursuing a passion for painting. He studied under the famed painters, Paul Delaroche and Charles Lucy, who encouraged him to begin exhibiting his work, rather than live a life in an office or courtroom. While visiting the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, he became intrigued by photographs he saw there and quickly made his way to Paris to learn about the calotype process. By 1852, he had photographs on display.

Never one to do things halfway, Fenton founded what later became the Royal Photographic Society in 1853. The society’s renown earned Fenton a commission from the British government to photograph the Crimean War. The photos were to counter the public’s and papers’ negative reactions to the war and – tame as they were – did just that. In reality, soldiers were dying of cold and disease and Fenton himself broke several ribs and contracted cholera. But the 350 negatives with which he returned were made using cumbersome equipment that only allowed for posed, not moving, shots. Unable to photograph actual battle, Fenton painted a prettier picture than what was actually occurring. He did, however, build a reputation as one of the first war photographers. In 1858, Fenton moved in a new direction, making imaginative studio shots of Muslim life. Starring his friends in borrowed garb, the photos were rarely convincing as authentic, but were rather titillating by Victorian standards. In 1862, disgusted with the commercialization of the art form, he sold his equipment and gave up the profession entirely.