‘No one can touch Fenton in landscape,” professed a critic for the Journal of the Photographic Society in 1858. While this retrospective of the pioneering nineteenth-century English photographer includes plenty of royal portraits, architectural photographs, and Orientalist tableaux vivants, Fenton’s landscapes stand out now as then. An early master of the medium, he turned its technical limitations into art worthy of contemporaries Turner, Constable, and Wordsworth. Skies, for example, were difficult to capture properly, because different parts of the spectrum required different exposure times, and most photographers simply let them wash out; in a set of romantic studies, Fenton did the opposite, showing dramatic masses of cumulus clouds above darkened fields.
His most famous landscape, however, is Valley of the Shadow of Death, a cannonball-strewn battlefield taken while Fenton was on assignment covering the Crimean War. Unable to record actual bodies (the equipment of the day was too cumbersome to tote around during combat), Fenton made do with a strikingly modern metaphor for fallen bodies, and in doing so he set the stage for Mathew Brady and later battle photographers. It’s a potent reminder that the landscape of war is (to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth) half-created and half-perceived.