Return to Russia
On 14 May, 2010 the Arab Hall of the state Hermitage held the exhibition, representing one of the brightest acquisitions of the museum of the last years – the collection of 22 photographs by Roger Fenton of 1852 and 1855.
Fenton is among the most distinguished photographers of the 19th century. The artistic merits of his works are indisputable, masterful grasp of the technique is obvious. The creative work of Fenton entirely “occupies” the 1850s and almost completely studies. Nevertheless, “new” discovery of Fenton, happened in the last decade, has provoked another wave of interest to his heritage.
Since his youth Roger Fenton has showed tendency to painting however, he could not win fame in this field. Exposure to exhibit items of the Photographic Department of the World Industrial Exhibition in London in 1851 was a turning point of his biography. It seems interesting that Fenton was attracted not by daguerreotype, which had reached its peak of popularity at that time, but calotype, rather modest at first sight. Originated in England and having got a great number of admirers there over a period of the 1840-1850s, it satisfied the search of experimentalists, seeing in photography a new type of art in the first place. Slight blurring of counters and the color, reminding sepia, made calotype close to drawing and lithography in perception of contemporaries and limitless printings gave it undeniable advantage against daguerreotype. There was a good reason to call calotype as the drawing with light rays.
His career of a photographer Fenton decided to start in Paris where he got acquainted with the technique of negative image on the waxed paper, invented shortly before that by Gustave Le Gray. He tried a new method during his first large trip around Russian in summer and autumn of 1852.
The trip was related to the order of the Emperor Nicholas I to British bridge builder Charles Vignola to erect the first capital bridge over the Dnieper. He, in his turn, asked Roger Fenton to imprint the stages of bridge building. In August 1852 he was in St Petersburg, on 24 September – in Kiev, and then, before returning to his fatherland, he visited Moscow. Interests of Fenton as a photographer and traveler were not limited only to the received order: it is proved by the survived prints of Russian cities. Going to Russia, Fenton looked for new impressions in nature and exotic architecture, like his colleagues, travelling around Egypt, Greece, Middle East. But the specific feature of Fenton’s photographs was the fact that he achieved the combination of historic and esthetic effects in them, having acted as a documentarian – event reporter and a true artist at the same time.
In this trip Fenton used one of the variant of the calotype method – technique of negative images on dry waxed paper. The main point of it as follows. The future paper negative is saturated with melted bee wax (taking away its excesses with the iron), and then the paper is saturated with silver salts, making it photosensitive. The main advantage of this method that it allows making negatives long before the moment of shooting (from several days to several weeks), as negatives are placed in the camera-obscura when they are dry.
The exhibition presents six prints of 1852 demonstrating masterful grasp of the technique and ability of the photographer to take artistic effect even out of rather modest landscape motives.
The shots of the Crimean War events taken in 1855 became the greatest works by Roger Fenton. To the theater of war actions he went by order of the publishing company Thomas Agnew &Sons and under support of the British government. During 111 days of his trip – from 8 March to 26 June of 1855 – he took over 300 shots. On return home the selected 312 prints were presented on 20 September at the exhibition in the Society of Watercolorists in London, and from November 1855 to April 1856 these prints (divided into thematic series and different in sizes) were published and came into the market. It is incredible, but photographs by Fenton, most famous today, did not arouse any interest of his contemporaries: neither as documental records, nor as artistic works.
There are sixteen prints from the places of the Crimean campaign well representing peculiarities of this series, including one of the best shots – Kadikoy from the Side of the Horse Artillery Camp are represented at the exhibition.
Exhibition curator – Natalia Avetyan, research assistant and custodian of the Photography Fund of the Department of Russian Culture of the State Hermitage.