Crimea in the Round: John Hannavy Looks at Panoramas of the Siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War

By Hannavy, John | History Today, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Crimea in the Round: John Hannavy Looks at Panoramas of the Siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War


Hannavy, John, History Today


THE CRIMEAN WAR (1853-56) has often been described as the last medieval war and the first modern one. It has also been described as the first war of the photographic age, and Roger Fenton (1819-69) as the first war photographer. War photography in 1855 was very different from the confrontational images we are used to today, and Fenton's images are better described as 'photography at war' rather than 'photography of war'.

Fenton, who used the cumbersome wet collodion process, took 360 images during a three-month stay in the Crimea in the spring and early summer of 1855, before returning to Britain suffering from malaria. He had hoped to stay long enough to record the fall of the main Russian base at Sevastopol which had been the focus of a Franco-British siege since the previous September. It was not to be. Repeated delays in the proposed British and French attack on the city and the dogged perseverance of the Russians meant that the city had not yet fallen by the time he left in June 1855.

He did, though, produce a significant visual account of the campaign and an illuminating series of letters to his publisher and to his wife, which recounted in vivid written detail what the camera could not capture. The process he used--at a time when photography was only fifteen years old--required the photographer to coat his own plates with light sensitive chemicals just before exposure, and process them immediately afterwards. He needed a darkroom by the side of his camera wherever he went, and for the duration of his stay in the war zone, he was accompanied by his assistant Marcus Sparling at the reins of a converted wine merchant's van which served as his darkroom and living quarters.

The temperatures in the summer of 1855 were high even by Crimean standards, and Fenton had to take his photographs before 10am, or the heat caused the collodion (guncotton dissolved in ether) to bubble and boil on his plates. Working in the confined space of his horse-drawn darkroom with hot ether fumes must have been appalling.

Revisiting the locations in the summer of 2002, I found trying to take photographs in the midday sun with today's lightweight and easy-to use equipment was quite challenging enough! By 5am it was warm. To judge from the regular measurements I took of the light levels, by about 6.30am, photography with the slow emulsions of the 1850s probably would have become possible on the plains north of Balaclava, south of Sevastopol. That means that he only had about three and-a-half hours each day before the beat got too great to work in. In and around the port of Balaclava itself, surrounded as it is by high hills, it is unlikely Fenton had sufficient direct sunlight until about 7am, so he had maybe three hours maximum for photography a day; but the last hour would have been uncomfortable for photographer and subject alike. Certainly the long shadows evident in many of his pictures do suggest very early-morning eastern sunlight.

His pictures comprise scenes in Balaclava harbour, camp scenes on the plains to the north, and group and individual portraits of the generals, officers and men who were there. It was not so much that photography was incapable of capturing animated scenes--the bright Crimean sunlight meant that exposures were in many cases almost instantaneous. But battles tended to take place later in the day; and the cumbersome nature of the photographic procedure made preparation before exposure, and processing afterwards, a lengthy process. To get photographer, assistant, camera and horse-drawn darkroom into a position where 'action' pictures might have been possible, would have posed too great a risk. In addition, tire middle- and upper-class Victorian public at whom the images were aimed would have considered graphic scenes of the brutality of war to be tasteless. It was not until the American Civil War, almost a decade later, that dead bodies figured in war photographs.

Photography in the Crimea was, therefore, restricted to scenes before and after encounters, and portraits taken in the safety of the camps. …

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