Photographers: Fenton and Brady

The next photographers the course notes ask us to consider are Roger Fenton (1819-69) and Matthew Brady (1822-96), both known for their war photography.

Roger Fenton

Fenton was a very early enthusiast of photography and became known for a wide range of genres including landscapes, still life and portraits.

His normal practice was not what one would consider that of a social documentarian. According to Clarke (1997: 45), “His images do not question cultural assumptions, but rather they reinforce them in a way that eighteenth-century painting did for its wealthy patrons“.

His war photography was no different. Clarke (1997: 45) notes that “Even the famous Crimean War images ignore the brutality of war, instead creating set pieces of an army at leisure“. Cotton (2009: 86) goes further in describing Fenton’s brief specifically as “being sent to take photographs that would reassure the public” following critical reporting by The Times newspaper.

As noted in the course text, the Fenton image Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) is infamous for being created in two versions, one with the cannonballs on the road and one without. Art historians disagree which was taken first, though the majority school of thought is that the cannonballs were placed on the empty road after the first shot to increase the sense of danger (with the alternative explanation being that the empty road shot was second, after the soldiers had harvested the ammunition for re-use). We may never know the definitive sequence.

Whichever is ‘true’, the fact of the differing opinions and the reputation of Fenton as someone who was interested in ‘keeping up appearances’ add to the overall fog around his work and intentions.

If nothing else, Fenton provides some evidence that notions of ‘truth’and ‘accuracy’ have been slippery since the birth of photography itself. Deciding what to take pictures of, and staging elements of a scene for reasons of either censorship or exaggeration both amount to a kind of subjectivity that clouds the ‘documentary’ issue significantly.

Matthew Brady

Brady’s most iconic work came out of the American Civil War. More than just a photographer, he oversaw a travelling studio of assistants documenting the war, often in a directorial capacity. He was a Civil War photographer in a wider sense, in that he also collected, archived and curated images from the war; he was almost an early example of a photography ‘brand’.

Clarke (1997: 34-36) explains in some detail how Brady, like Fenton before him, used photography to reinforce established hierarchy. He seems as incapable (or as unwilling) as Fenton to engage in what we might now call ‘straight’ reporting of what he saw.

Brady did however expand beyond the unrepresentative ‘army at leisure’ imagery of Fenton and got closer to the action. In this respect he was a pioneer in photojournalism in general and war photography in particular, even if his brand of ‘journalism’ has subsequently been accused of subjectivity. One must always consider the purpose (and the patron) of a photographic endeavour.

Image manipulation

As highlighted in the course notes, Brady was not above a little bit of Fenton-esque scene manipulation or staging – moving people and things to better evoke the sense of narrative. Is this ever acceptable? This is a very contentious point, almost as old as photography itself. It brings to mind the 1876 case of Dr Barnado and his use of staged images of child poverty (Wells 2009: 71-72), which hinged on the difference between the denotative truth and the connotative truth. Other art forms can get away with embellishment or hyperbole to reinforce a point, but photography does not get such a pass; its indexical nature is interpreted as a guarantee of ‘honesty’ (rightly or wrongly).

Bringing the problematic topic of image manipulation right up to date, Reuters recently instructed freelance photographers to only provide straight-out-of-camera JPGs, not images processed from a Raw file. Whilst this is related to processing manipulation rather than staging manipulation, the underlying rational is the same: the ethical imperative to show ‘truthful’ images.

My personal opinion is that news photography should not be manipulated, either before or after the shot was taken – unless the publication that uses the image very clearly explains how and why the image was constructed or altered. The risk is that images are very often taken away from their original context.

My opinion differs when one considers social documentary photography (as distinct from pure photojournalism); in this genre I believe it’s acceptable to apply a certain level of artistic ‘vision’ on the subject matter to support the overall message – whether this be increasing the contrast, straightening horizons or cloning out telegraph poles sticking out of people’s heads. Aesthetics do matter to a certain degree in getting the intended message across. But to reiterate, I believe that news photography should not have such an aesthetic filter applied (literally or figuratively).


Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge. (accessed 17/12/2015)



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