1.1 Historic portrait

Brief: Do some research into historic photographic portraiture. Select one portrait to really study in depth. Write a maximum of 500 words about this portrait, but don’t merely ‘describe’ what you see. The idea behind this exercise is to encourage you to be more reflective in your written work (see Introduction), which means trying to elaborate upon the feelings and emotions generated whilst viewing an image. Read what has already been written about your chosen practitioner’s archive, paying particular attention to what historians and other academics have highlighted in their texts.

Exercise 1.1: Historic Portrait (Page 24)


When I looked a ‘Top 20’ of historic photographs I saw a name that I recognised but had not explored, Roger Fenton (1819 – 1869), a pioneering British photographer and one of the first war photographers. In 1855 Fenton went to the Crimean War to photograph the troops. His best know photograph is ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’ which features a desolate and featureless landscape inhabited only by cannonballs, so plentiful that they first appear to be rocks, that stand in for the human casualties on the battlefield ravine. It is an example of absence photography. http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/60602/roger-fenton-valley-of-the-shadow-of-death-english-april-23-1855/

I decided to look at some of his other work and investigate his life and my reactions to his photography. This is the photograph I will examine of Captain Charles Aug. Drake, 5th Dragoon taken in 1855 and is one of his many images of soldiers and horses. The extensive database of the images from the Crimean War that I selected from is on the link in the pictures caption.


Thomas Agnew, a London publisher, as a commercial proposition, sanctioned by the government, sent Fenton to the Crimea sending a photograph the to the Crimean war to counteract the influential but negative reports from the Times war correspondent William Howard Russell. His training was as a painter, architect (1852) then royal photographer (1854) and solicitor.

At the end of 1854 he bought a van, converted it into a mobile darkroom and tested this out by travelling it in. It is not clear why there are no photographs of casualties but it is likely that there was a complicit agreement between him, the government, publisher and royal patronage. In the UK he photographed leading members of the armed forces and soldier’s camp life. There were other photographers taking images of war and while the intention of his images might have been propaganda it does not seem that this was the end to which they were used and may were disposed on unsold in 1856.

The vivid, though understated, reality of war presented in the photographs may have led to a negative reaction by the viewing public, which ignored the aesthetic and technical qualities inherent in the photographs. (Photoman, 2010)

One of the most interesting comments about his work is that his work presages the kind of war photography that were are familiar with.

Fenton’s photographs, like the Crimean War itself, teetered on the border between the past and modernity, abandoning the romanticism of history painting without yet reaching Brady’s bloodied realism. (Toler, 2012).

My view of this image

The denotative aspects are a military figure on a horse against an empty textured landscape. The light falls on the horse and figure from the right and their well-defined shadow in to the left. They are in profile but there is also a shadow of what appears to be two people in the left foreground and an intruding triangular shadow from the left. The background is lighter and granular suggesting land rather than sky.

The connotative aspects of this are of ‘hero’ soldier with his instrument of war a warhorse; both are as one. These heroes are literally in the spotlight and for its time it is probably a conventional portrait. The blur of the background illustrates the blandness and banality of the arena of war and war. What strikes me most about this image is the contrast between the figures and the back and foreground. The horror of war is absent and replaced by banality. This must have been intentional because of his compositional skills as a painter and other examples of his work such as the iconic ‘Valley of the shadow of death’ where absence emphasizes the horror.

This image looks dated compared to the ‘up-close’ realism of war photographers like  Robert Capa and Don McCullin but both also operated within government restrictions (O’Hagan, 2010).

The studium that appeals to is that it lies within a typology of formal military portraits that one often still see in people’s homes, but there is no punctum that provokes my senses and emotions (Barthes, 1982).



Photoman, M. (2010). “Roger Fenton – the first war photographer. http://sluggerotoole.com/2010/11/07/roger-fenton-the-first-war-photographer-2/.” Retrieved 1st August, 2016, from 1st August, 2016.

Toler, P. (2012). “In the Valley of the Shadow of Death: Roger Fenton’s Crimean War photos. http://www.historynet.com/in-the-valley-of-the-shadow-of-death-roger-fentons-crimean-war-photos.htm.” Retrieved 1st August, 2016.

O’Hagan, S. (2010). “Shaped by war: Photographs by Don McCullin. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/feb/07/don-mccullin-shaped-war-review.” Retrieved 1st August, 2016d.

Barthes, R. (1982). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London, Jonathan Cape.