From its founding in 1990, the National Gallery of Art's photography department has seemed to relish the role of certifying the artistic merit of photographers already widely considered great. This is true of the blue-chip modernist pioneers it has largely favored, such as Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, as well as the postwar iconoclasts, such as Robert Frank and Harry Callahan. But times are changing, and the museum's current show, a retrospective of the work of Roger Fenton, a 19th-century English practitioner little known except to students of photography history, may presage a new direction.
"All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860," which opens tomorrow, is the first exhibition in the museum's newly refurbished and now exclusively dedicated photography galleries. It also has the appearance of a radical act of revisionism. It takes what little we know about Fenton's career and stands it on its head. For example, Fenton (1819-1869) is mostly remembered for his pictures taken during the Crimean War, yet there are only seven scenes from the Crimea among the 91 prints in the show. The rest are portraits, still lifes, landscapes and architectural studies.
In the exhibition's catalogue, which includes a full battery of footnoted essays, many of the existing notions about Fenton's career are debunked or questioned. Did Fenton go to the Crimea primarily to make propaganda for the embattled British government? Probably not. Did he study in Paris with painter Paul Delaroche alongside Gustave LeGray, Henri LeSecq and other important early French photographers? Not likely.
Instead, we learn in fine detail about his crucial role in founding the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society), about his close relationship with Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, and about the public response to his pictures during his lifetime. The result is a more nuanced sense of what it meant to be one of the first British photographers to operate in the gap between art and commerce.
The exhibition takes its title from William Wordsworth's poem "Tintern Abbey," a classic statement of the romantic worldview. Embracing nature as a spiritual source, the poet asserts that our senses allow us not only to perceive the world but also to "half create" it. This is key to understanding how Fenton's photographs (or anyone's) can be seen as art: They are his unique perceptions of the world, not mere objective "documents" of it. In the show, this is most clear in the pictures of ruins and the British countryside, where Fenton allowed his romantic feelings full rein.
Taking up photography only a dozen years after its public debut, Fenton had the good fortune -- and misfortune -- to live in interesting times. Just as it is now, the technology of photography was rapidly changing, and so was everyday life. The Industrial Revolution was altering all aspects of the English economy, in the process creating new social structures and new wealth, of which Fenton was a part. His family fortune came from a cotton mill near Manchester, but he lived in London and, thanks largely to his skill with the camera, moved in the same circles as the landed gentry and even the royals. He showed the queen and prince how photography worked, and they allowed him to photograph them, their family and their castles.
The seeming casualness of his portraits of the royal children gives them the aura of snapshots, even though Fenton faced great technical challenges in taking them. One might say that he anticipated the Kodak idea of amateur photography by some 30 years. Similarly, he can lay claim to paving the way for photojournalism, having taken some 350 glass-plate negatives on the front of the Crimean War in 1855. Although at least one other photographer preceded him to Balaklava, Fenton's pictures alone have survived, and calling them remarkable is an understatement.
An expert in what then were new methods of taking photographs, Fenton was capable of creating pictures that were exquisitely beautiful. His first travels with a camera, in 1852, produced a delicate series of prints of the Kremlin. These are all the more amazing because he used paper for his negatives, first waxing it to make it translucent and then hand-coating it with a silver solution. After his return to England, he switched to glass, using the new "wet plate" process that would become the standard for much of the rest of the 19th century. Hired by the British Museum in 1854 to photograph objects in its collection, he made what could be considered the first collection of art-history photographs and some of the first pictures of natural-history specimens. Examples in the show, such as "Head of Minerva" and "Skeleton of Man and of the Male Gorilla," are not only precisely rendered in fine detail but also beautifully printed in dulcet, warm tones. This is also true of the still life pictures Fenton made near the end of his career: The grapes and peaches and pineapples that he arranged on a tabletop are invitingly palpable in these prints, even if the arrangements themselves are a rehash of academic realist paintings.
This is, in short, a show filled with beautiful pictures of subjects that in many cases were unprecedented at the time they were made. That said, the exhibition suffers somewhat for its organization and installation. Wading through its 10 separate sections in half as many rooms, a visitor may lose momentum long before Fenton gives up photography. More significant, by minimizing the importance of his Crimean project in favor of an abundance of ruined abbeys, stately homes and bucolic landscapes, the curators make the photographer at once more a pure artist and more conventional.
Theirs is a Fenton who, despite numerous breakthroughs, remains a toady to the taste of his time, which in the end makes him seem rather unappealing. His 1860 pictures of the grounds of Windsor Castle may have earned him the applause of Victoria and Albert, but here they smack of an unseemly urge for upward mobility.
The show's episodic quality may be partly a result of its genesis. It was jointly organized by Sarah Greenough, Malcolm Daniel and Gordon Baldwin, curators of photographs at the National Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art and J. Paul Getty Museum, respectively. This is a distinguished group of curators but tantamount to a committee. In any case, the issue of Fenton's artistic and social aspirations lies squarely at the artist's own doorstep.
Fenton's career, despite its penchant for innovation, ultimately appears devoted to serving the status quo. By the time he stopped photographing after a scant decade of picture-making, Fenton's style and subject matter seemed passe even to his contemporaries. If we take to heart Greenough's observation that Fenton lived "on the cusp between old and new, between an order that was thoroughly known and a nascent one that was fluid and uncertain," it seems clear why, in 1862, Fenton abandoned photography as abruptly as he adopted it. Don't be surprised if some photographers today do the same.
All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860 is at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, through Jan. 2. The museum is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is free. Call 202-737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.