Crimea: Where War Photography Was Born

Mansell Collection—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Mansell Collection—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Scene during the Crimean War, 1850s.

With the great historical crossroads of Crimea and, indeed, all of Ukraine still dominating world headlines — almost a year after Russia’s “stealth invasion” of the region — takes a look back at another, long-ago conflict in the same area through a singular lens: namely, that of the very earliest war photography.

[MORE: “4 Reasons Putin Is Already Losing in Ukraine”]

The Crimean War of the 1850s, after all, was arguably where the genre was born, with British photographers like Roger Fenton (1819 – 1869) and James Robertson (1813 – 1888), the Italian-British Felice Beato (1832 – 1909) and the Austro-Hungarian Carol Szathmari (1812 – 1887) making what most historians consider the very first photographs of a major military conflict. Their pictures might lack the often-brutal drama of modern war photography, but they nevertheless serve as compelling documentation of the look and, in a sense, the logistics of mid-19th century warfare. Within a few years, Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner and others would document the American Civil War more thoroughly and graphically than Fenton, Robertson, Beato or any others managed in Crimea — a clear indication of how rapidly photography took hold as a critical method of reportage.

Incidentally, some readers might recall Errol Morris’ epic three-part Opinionator column in the New York Times several years ago, when the filmmaker and essayist delved deep into two particular Roger Fenton photos from the Crimean War. If you’re not familiar with it, read the whole thing. It’s astonishing. Here’s one of the Fenton photos Morris examined — with his customarily obsessive, wry and deeply intelligent eye.

Valley of the Shadow of Death, c 1855.

SSPL/Getty Images

The Valley of the Shadow of Death, Crimean War (1853-1856), photographed by Roger Fenton.

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