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Crimea in the Round

John Hannavy looks at panoramas of the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War.

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.

The photographs so far discovered are clearly from two different sets, depicting two quite different segments of the same battle scene. Both are obviously Russian – Russian language captions are included in some. The two sets are substantially different in their treatment of the scene, although both are apparently taken from approximately the same viewpoint in the centre of the siege, though looking in opposite directions.

What were these images, and how had they come about? As recently as 1985, some eminent photographic ‘experts’ were reluctant to label them as ‘fakes’, so realistic did they appear to be. One writer in the 1980s believed them to have been taken with almost instantaneous exposures – citing the absence of blurring in the figures. Others claimed that they were photo-montages made in the 1860s, some ten years after the war, while yet others were adamant that they were genuine photographs.

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