An excellent exhibition of photographs by Roger Fenton (1819-69) is currently on display next to the Turner prize nominees at Tate Britain. Fenton himself was compared to Turner and this is most evident in the picturesque landscape composition and hazy sunlight of Wharfe and Pool, Below the Strid (1854). Like Turner, he depicted ruined abbeys - timeless and almost uninvolving - the eye is drawn instead to the people giving the buildings scale. Rocky landscapes also have an air of permanence, but the rivers running through them are a smoky blur. In Derwentwater, Looking to Borrowdale (1860), Fenton managed to preserve the mist hovering over the lake and in Up the Hodder, near Stonyhurst (1859) there is an extraordinary silver sheen to the river.
Fenton’s scenes of stately homes continue this dialectic of permanence/transience: the brief lives of the owners, the old stones. A favourite of mine is The Long Walk (1860) taken at Windsor. I remembered it from the cover of Rebecca Solnit’s book Wanderlust but now I’m rather saddened to realise that the cover photograph must have been digitally altered. The two images look the same but on Wanderlust there is just a solitary figure, sharply defined, rather than the less distinct figures of a woman and a girl.
Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean War avoid the conflict itself but tell a moving story through landscapes. Valley of the Shadow Death (above, 1855), for example, shows a nondescript track, littered with cannon balls. Elsewhere Fenton captured the empty plain at Sebastopol, another bleak vista, with just a few isolated figures gesturing towards the distant town.