New College of the Humanities

Photography at War

Jonathan Marwil tells how the wars of the mid-19th century, in Europe and beyond, proved the perfect subject for a new medium to show its amazing potential.

"Shadow of the Valley of Death" Dirt road in ravine scattered with cannonballs, Crimea, Roger Fenton, 1855 (Library of Congress)On July 13th, 1839, the chemist and physicist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac reported to the French Chamber of Peers on the photographic process recently invented by Louis J.M. Daguerre. Among its uses, Gay-Lussac argued, was the capacity of the daguerrotype to render a landscape precisely. He cited one particular kind of landscape to make his point: three or four minutes are sufficient for execution, a field of battle, with its successive phases, can be drawn with a degree of perfection that could be obtained by no other means.

Thus from its birth did the adherents of photography stake out its claim on war. Within a generation artists were beginning to be dispossessed of theirs. ‘It is well enough for some Baron Gros or Horace Vernet to please an imperial master with fanciful portraits’, wrote the American poet and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes in July 1863, but ‘war and battles should have truth for their delineator’, and the photographer could best supply that.

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