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Valley of the Shadow of Death, Crimean War

Roger Fenton, 1856
Musée d'Orsay, Paris


Contemporary critic Chauncy Hare Townshend comments on the power of ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’:

“’[W]ith its terrible suggestions, not merely those awakened in the memory but actually brought materially before the eyes, by the photographic reproduction of the cannon-balls lying strewed like the moraines of a melted glacier through the bottom of the valley’.”

The Journal of the Photographic Society (21 September 1855). Cited in Mark Haworth-Booth, “The Dawning of an Age. Chauncy Hare Townshend: Eyewitness,” The Golden Age of British Photography 1839-1900 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1984), 17.


Valerie Lloyd explains the context surrounding Fenton’s Crimea expedition:

“In 1854, against increasing criticism of the government’s administration of the war in the Crimea and evidently also in line with earlier demands, recorded in the Literary Gazette, to send a party of photographers to the war, Thomas Agnew of the Manchester firm of print dealers commissioned Fenton ‘to produce in the Crimea, and to take such a round of portraits, scenic and personal, as should illustrate as perfectly as possible the aspects of the campaign.’ Thus private enterprise was to satisfy a predominantly public demand. Earlier Fenton had purchased an old wine merchant’s van, using it as his traveling darkroom during the summer of 1854 to tour Yorkshire….Furnished with letters of introduction to all the commanding officers by Prince Albert, Fenton set out, in December 1854, with his van and assistants, in a government vessel bound for Balaklava by way og Gibraltar. When his party arrived, the chaos at the dock rendered it impossible to unload the van, and Fenton, in the course of going for help, broke several ribs, thus facing enormous physical odds from the start. The real situation in the Crimea – mayhem compounded by military blunders – was immediately manifest. During the next six months he worked unceasingly and, as a highly visible target, frequently came under enemy fire, once losing the roof of his van to a mortar explosion. The pictures he managed to take do not record the action, and he did not portray corpses on the battlegrounds….His critics later noted Fenton’s omissions: The Observer found it ‘a remarkable circumstance – one well worth mentioning – that in no instance has there been an attempt to photograph the armies in action, or even to give or represent a single incident of the bombardment or the defense.

The resulting group of photographs – according to various reports up to 360 in all (Fenton took over 700 glass plates to the Crimea) – was exhibited very shortly after his return….A sense of responsibility to his patrons and an eagerness to reassure an anxious public may have influenced what he chose not to photograph – scenes of elaborate suffering and distress or casualties – but his selectivity more likely derived from his own opinions on taste and human dignity.”

Cited in Valerie Lloyd, “Roger Fenton and the Making of a Photographic Establishment,” The Golden Age of British Photography 1839-1900 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1984), 73.

About the Artist

Born: Bury, Lancashire, March 1819
Died: London, 8 August 1869
Nationality: English