Please don’t be put off by the rather depressing title. I’ve just been thinking about the Crimea region of Ukraine recently, because … well, duh. And any mention of Crimea brings to mind a series of images.
Not images I took. Not images of people who are still alive.
You see, the Crimean War was the first war ever (kinda, sorta) photographed. Say “19th-century war photographs” to most people, and they will think of the American Civil War. The conflict in Crimea, however, predated the one on the U.S.; it ended five years before our Civil War began. And a Britishman named Roger Fenton (1819-1869) set out to immortalize his country’s fighting forces.
Photography back then wasn’t as simple as pushing a button and letting technology do the rest. Fenton made a type of picture called the calotype. The process involved making a wet-paper negative print and then contact-printing it onto another sheet of treated paper. Calotypes required really long exposure times, so Fenton had no chance to make “action shots,” and anyway the sensibility of the Victorian era would have rejected stark photographs of dead bodies, like those taken at Antietam and Gettysburg in the following decade. Fenton and his assistants had to cart along a whole wagon full of equipment (please click on that link — WordPress is giving me trouble with uploads).
Mostly Fenton took highly posed photographs of British officers, but he also captured some landscapes. One can only imagine how these images would have looked to people who had never seen the world like that before — indeed, who spent most or all of their lives within a hundred or so miles of their birthplace.
Fenton’s most famous image was dubbed “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” probably after that “shadow of Death” phrase in the famous Tennyson poem. It shows a landscape denuded of plants, with a depressed dirt road strewn with cannonballs. Some people say Fenton and his team faked the photo, because there’s another version of the photo without the cannonballs.
Which image came first? Does it matter? Should it matter? A writer and filmmaker named Errol Morris wrote a three-part meditation on that set of questions for the New York Times back in 2007, well before our 15oth-anniversary observances of the American Civil War — or our worrying about Ukraine and Russia.
Anyhow, whenever I hear about this current crisis, I can’t help visualizing these sepia-tone images of dry battlefields long past.