“All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852–1860”

Technological advancement, of course, doesn’t necessarily make for better art. Consider the 1850s, a time of rapid change in the field of photography. By the end of the decade, the painstaking, single-image daguerreotype process had been all but killed off by faster, multiple-producing negative-and-print formats. But though this made photography more viable commercially, it didn’t help the medium much artistically: In terms of level of detail, the prints made from waxed-paper and glass-plate negatives just couldn’t match the daguerreotype in all its reflective-metal glory.

The refinements that ultimately improved the resolution and clarity of negatives and prints—not to mention the ability of cameras to make split-second exposures—still lay decades in the future. So pioneering photographers such as Roger Fenton had to operate within a world of low resolution, high contrast, and near stasis. It should come as no surprise that the National Gallery of Art’s 91-piece “All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852–1860” is a tour of the dark and imprecise.

Born in Heywood, England, in 1819, Fenton forsook legal aspirations in favor of artistic ones, founding what later became known as the Royal Photographic Society and gaining the attention of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who would allow him to photograph their family in unprecedentedly intimate settings. Fenton also essentially became the first photographic war correspondent by visiting the battlefields of the Crimea, and he later traveled the English, Scottish, and Welsh countrysides to document both the natural landscape and the vernacular architecture. Beset by professional, financial, and family difficulties, he gave up his artistic career in November 1862, just 11 years after he began it and seven years before he died.

In many of the photographs in the exhibition, especially the landscapes and architectural images, Fenton looked backward—to the Romantic movement and its idealized notions of the sublime and the picturesque, certainly, but to the older medium of painting as well. Yet Fenton, who had trained as a painter himself, also realized that photography could be more than merely a convenient replacement for the brush and canvas, and he tirelessly tested its limits. When his work succeeds, it’s because he took advantage of photography’s distinct capabilities. When it doesn’t, it’s because he tried to replicate an art that photography was ill-placed to improve upon.

Consider Fenton’s photographs of Gothic churches and ruins, of which there are mind-numbingly many in “All the Mighty World.” In Rievaulx Abbey, the High Altar (1854), for instance, a tiny figure, barely recognizable as female, kneels in prayer beneath a ruin of vaulted arches. Dressed in black, she is almost swallowed by intense shadows, even as trees and other vegetation seem to bake in harsh sunlight behind her. Similarly, Lindisfarne Priory (1856) depicts a stone ruin in a high-contrast hodgepodge of pitiless sun and deep murk, backing it with a hopelessly blank sky.

That Fenton included Tintern Abbey among his ecclesiastical subjects is telling: These pieces are Wordsworth rendered on photographic paper—without, unfortunately, any of the subtlety of tone or range of effect that Constable, Turner, Friedrich, and other Wordsworthian painters of the era could conjure. When Fenton paid close attention to the textures of his subjects and the nature of the light available to him, he had much greater success. In Lincoln Cathedral, West Porch (1857), he captured a doorway whose delicate stone- and woodwork seem almost palpably three-dimensional. It’s no accident that this time the light is even and mild. And for Salisbury Cathedral—the Nave, From the South Transept (1858), he photographed using only available light in a dark interior space—not an easy task in the 1850s, but one that avoids falling back on the traditions of painting. In so doing, Fenton managed to infuse the scene with subtle shadings and quiet dignity. More important, he was thinking in terms of his medium.

That didn’t stop Fenton from experimenting with other backward-looking genres, however. His multipiece Orientalist Group of 1858, in which he and his friends posed in costume to portray their English ideas of Eastern decadence, was criticized even in its own time for being scenically contrived. Today, the series appears almost laughably bad, with ethnic stereotyping and self-indulgence topping the list of its faults. Fenton’s still lifes—indelicately composed, in-your-face arrangements of fruits and tableware—succeed hardly any better. Limned in vivid hues by a skilled painter, his arrangements might have offered some spark. But recorded mechanically by a camera and printed by someone who had necessarily limited ability to control contrast and tone, they seem lifeless.

Two images of urban London demonstrate how Fenton could be both quaintly wrong and prophetically right in his approach to photography. In Houses of Parliament (c. 1858), the famous building is captured in middling resolution, fronted by a murky Thames River and backed by an empty sky—a far inferior cityscape to those taken a decade earlier as daguerreotypes, in which every window and cornice was fixed with startling clarity. Much better is Westminster From Waterloo Bridge (c. 1858), in which Fenton set Parliament in the far distance, where the lack of detail is not a distraction. Instead, the eye focuses on the brash horizontal zip in the middle ground—a bridge that seemingly slices right through the buildings on the far side of the river, held up by the smooth curves of suspension cables.

Although that piece was made relatively late in Fenton’s career, it’s not accurate to argue that his work improved over time. Several early images from Russia, for example, also benefit from smart, camera-friendly composition. Arguably the finest of these, 1852’s The Church of the Redeemer, Moscow, Under Construction, found the resonances between a gridlike scaffolding and two gently undulating piles of cut timber. And in the midcareer Roslin Chapel, South Porch (1856), Fenton photographed another carved-stone façade head-on, this time placing the opening of a retreating passageway front and center. As the viewer’s eyes follow the path through this oval aperture, they first encounter a mysterious blackness and then the cheerful light of an otherwise unseen courtyard. It’s not only a complex tableau but also a delightfully unexpected one.

“All the Mighty World,” unfortunately, sprinkles only a few examples of Fenton’s Crimean War reportage among all the weathered cathedrals, stately country homes, and babbling brooks, but it includes just enough to draw some tentative conclusions. Fenton was sent to the Crimea with the approval of Prince Albert for unclear reasons; the curators suggest it could have been a way to assemble pro-war propaganda or, just as easily, a mission motivated by concern for the troops’ welfare. The royal sponsorship made Fenton a semicelebrity who had a first-class ride through the battlefield, and the photographer’s personal goal on the trip was to produce a collection of prints that he could sell to affluent Britons after his return.

Neither of these facts suggests that Fenton would produce thought-provoking imagery. Indeed, many of his Crimea photographs are heroic portraits of fancily dressed officers. Fenton also hewed carefully to Victorian mores that prohibited the showing of those killed in war, though he regularly encountered casualties on the battlefield. But every so often, suggestive images slipped through. Consider the weary eyes and slump-shouldered stance of Captain Lord Balgonie, Grenadier Guards (1855), which suggest that the subject has taken part in something other than a routine military excursion. And Sebastopol From Cathcart’s Hill (1855) shows a rickety tent and three small men perched on a lonely, windswept wasteland dotted with stubbly rocks—the bleak prize, presumably, that awaited the war’s victors.

Then there’s Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855), which documents an empty landscape strewn with dozens of cannonballs. The contrast between its eerie quietude and the violence lurking beyond the frame explains why the photograph lives up to its reputation as a major statement of the futility of war. The contrast between this stark image and the weapon-, man-, and beast-crammed battle scenes of, say, Delacroix, couldn’t be more dramatic. And Fenton’s sensibility here couldn’t be more modern: This is a picture made by an eye fully adapted to the camera, with all the man-machine implications that carries.

Two of Fenton’s last photographs are also striking in their modernity. The first, The Long Walk (1860), follows a path zooming into the picture horizontally from the right, then turning straight back toward the distant horizon—a protominimalist view that could easily have been made 70 years later, if not more. The second, The Queen’s Target (1860), is even more startling. The photograph, of a target that Victoria shot at during an exhibition, shows nothing more than a rudimentary black circle inscribed with white cross hairs, painted on a flat surface divided into three vertical members. Conjure up any present-day equivalent you like—Jasper Johns’ target paintings; Aaron Siskind’s photographic portrayals of painted walls; Minor White’s tripartite barn-side image, The Three Thirds—Fenton’s image is its masterfully abstracted equal. Whether that was a fluke or a culmination is impossible to determine, but it seems safe to say that no other mid-19th-century photographer ever made a picture quite like this. CP