Image: Library of Congress

This bustling black-and-white photograph offers an atmospheric view of a natural harbour crowded with ships, campaign tents, livestock and supplies. Titled Cossack Bay, Balaklava, and taken during the summer months of 1855 – just a couple of decades after the birth of photography – it is part of a fascinating portfolio of pictures of the Crimean War taken by the great Victorian pioneer Roger Fenton.

The 300-plus images in the set are celebrated today as the first systematic attempt by a photographer to chronicle a war campaign. Or rather, to chronicle the actors and scenery of a war campaign – for although Fenton and his assistant experienced hardships and technical difficulties as they travelled around (using a mobile darkroom converted from a former wine merchant’s van), the images themselves reveal little sign of the grisly experience of combat.

Fenton’s Crimean portfolio includes portraits of soldiers of all ranks, landscape views, diverse scenes of camp life, and all manner of weaponry and ordnance – but no actual fighting. In the set’s most famous photograph, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, we see a scrubby landscape through which runs a deserted path littered with countless cannonballs – the stark reality of a busy battlefield but without the human element. This ghostly absence only adds to the image’s haunting power.

To what extent this lack of action came about by design or by censorship is hard to discern. Fenton came to Crimea with a commercial commission from publisher Thomas Agnew, and with the assistance of the British Government. It is clear that the constraints of the medium – and lengthy exposure times – meant that movement or action was hard to convey.

It seems likely, however, that the dictates of government and employer also played a part in ensuring such an orderly and almost distant view of the conflict.

Viewed today, Fenton’s photographs offer an extraordinarily detailed glimpse into the everyday life of an army encamped in a foreign land. It was not until a few years later, however, that the photographers of the American Civil War went one step further and gave the public its first exposure to combat’s bloody reality.

Maria Earle

This article appeared in issue 74 of Military History Monthly.