by Matt Damsker
Published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London. 304 pages; 89 plates. $65. ISBN No. 1-58839-128-0 (hardcover); 1-58839-129-9 (paperback); 0-300-10490-1 (Yale University Press). The book accompanies the exhibition of the same name held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., from October 17, 2004, to January 2, 2005; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, from February 1 to April 24, 2005; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from May 24 to August 21, 2005; and Tate Britain, London, from September 21, 2005 to January 2, 2006.
It is hard to grasp that Roger Fenton created a deathless and rather extensive body of photographic work in less than a single decade, from 1852 to 1860, only to retire from the medium and return to the practice of law--as if taking pictures had been something of a detour. Perhaps it had, since the medium was so new and novel, while Fenton's academic grounding, in painting and law, was highly traditional.
Still, as the extensive biographical essays in this catalogue tell us, Fenton himself was a portrait of professional indecision, and it is a good thing for posterity that a checkered early career led him to the blank slate of photography at its first golden moment. Traveling to Russia in 1852, he was among the first to capture the Kremlin in photos, and within a few years he was commissioned to photograph the Crimean War, turning out landmark portraits of battle-worn soldiers and blasted battlefields.
These images alone would have been enough to cement his reputation, but this wonderful exhibition--touring halfway round the world, deservedly--tracks the Fenton who captured so much more, from the open spaces of Great Britain to posed Orientalist images that echo Delacroix and Ingres. Fenton's shots of such European abbeys as Tintern or Rievaulx catch the spiritual richness of church architecture activated by casual passersby and contemplative sitters. We can feel the life in those moments, while the rigor of Fenton's exposures, his strong tonalities, and painterly compositions seem to make the utmost of the sharp detailing and glossy surface of the albumen-print process he favored for much of his career.
In his Russian and the Crimean photos, though, he was working in the earlier salt-print process, which generated a softer texture and dreamier tone. Thus, the vistas of church domes in Moscow, or views of the Kremlin walls, have a misty quality evocative of Constable's or Turner's paintings. Meanwhile, the cannonball-strewn fields of the Crimean War are like moonscapes, harsh and hilly, with a near horizon. And Fenton's images of grimy Hussars or Croat chieftains, under skies that seem thick with powder, are nothing less than archetypes of military fatigue.
After the exertions of Crimea, Fenton seemed to throw himself into the romanticism and lyricism of Scotland and Wales, documenting his abbeys, chapels, and church ruins with a palpable affection. Craggy Scottish vistas, of falls and lush valleys, have a pantheistic intensity to rival anything by the Hudson River School of painters. Likewise, Fenton's English landscapes and portraits of stately homes are marked by an inspired eye for perspective. In one lovely oval 1859 image of Harewood House in Yorkshire, the sumptuous residence is glimpsed from a great distance, through trees and across water, shimmering in the center of the photo like a dream of civilization, and with a miniaturist delicacy that seems almost Japanese.
Indeed, the Orientalist studies of 1858--costumed studio shots of near-east pashas, odalisques, water carriers--prove that Fenton was comfortable with the exotic, along with a languid female sexuality that boldly confronts the camera. These photos point to modernism, even though Fenton's career-closing sequence of lush still lifes--fruits and decanters, flowers and foliage, baskets and fringed cloth--seem to be where his artistic heart lay, though now they seem fussy and mannered. Of course, Fenton always wanted to prove that photography could equal painting, if not surpass it, but, despite the expansiveness of his work, perhaps he saw too narrowly. The mighty world that called to Fenton can contain oceans of expression, none truly better than any other. If he hadn't given up so soon, who knows what worlds he might have conquered?
Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.