Roger Fenton is an icon in the history of photography and is considered to be the most renowned and influential photographer in England during the "golden age" of the medium in the 1850s. Before his photography career, Fenton studied law in London and painting in Paris. His passion for photography led him to travel to Russia in 1852, where he captured stunning landmarks in Kiev and Moscow. Fenton founded the Photographic Society, which later became the Royal Photographic Society, in 1853. He became the first official photographer of the British Museum in 1854 and achieved recognition for his photographic coverage of the Crimean War in 1855. Throughout the decade, Fenton excelled in all genres of photography, including architecture, landscape, portraiture, still life, reportage, and tableau vivant.
Fenton's skill in photographing architecture was unparalleled in England. He took on the task of capturing the most significant churches and abbeys in Great Britain, using a format as large as 14 x 18 inches. His perfect technique and precise selection of vantage points and lighting conditions conveyed a sense of monumentality and imbued his pictures with a romantic spirit. Fenton's architectural subjects included the Gothic cathedrals of Salisbury, Wells, Lincoln, and Lichfield; Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and the British Museum; Windsor and Balmoral Castles; and the ruined abbeys of Rievaulx, Fountains, Rosslyn, and Lindisfarne.
Fenton's landscape photography was also without equal in England. His views of the English, Welsh, and Scottish countryside were comparable to the paintings of Constable and Turner and Romantic poems by William Wordsworth that celebrated man's ties to nature. Fenton had a particular sensitivity to the play of light and atmosphere in the natural world, a subject he explored throughout his career with as much determination and success as he did in architecture. The Journal of the Photographic Society's critic wrote in 1858, "No one can touch Fenton in landscape. There is such an artistic feeling about the whole of these pictures … that they cannot fail to strike the beholder as being something more than mere photographs."
Fenton achieved his most widespread acclaim with photographs of the Crimean War in 1855, a conflict between British, French, Sardinian, and Turkish troops and Russia's attempt to expand its influence into European territory of the Ottoman empire. Fenton was commissioned by the Manchester publisher Thomas Agnew & Sons to document the war and encouraged by the government, which hoped that his photographs would reassure a worried public. Fenton's documentation of the war, which was the first of its kind, included pictures of the port of Balaklava, the camps, the terrain of battle, and portraits of officers, soldiers, and support staff of the various allied armies.
In 1858, Fenton produced a theatrical suite of Orientalist compositions, possibly inspired by his experience of traveling through Constantinople en route to Balaklava or the mid-nineteenth-century vogue for all things exotic. These costume pieces strove for high art rather than documentation and owed as much to the paintings of Delacroix and Ingres as to Fenton's own experience in the East.
After his final series of photographs, a remarkable group of lush still lifes, Fenton sold his equipment and negatives, resigned from the Royal Photographic Society, and returned to the bar in 1862. In just a decade, Fenton had played a significant role in demonstrating that photography could rival drawing and painting, not only as a means of conveying information but also as a medium of visual delight and powerful expression.