The Valley of the Shadow of Death
In his work as a photographer, Roger Fenton excelled in all genres: landscape, architectural views, reportage, portraits and even, on occasion, still life. However, his greatest contribution to the history of photograph was his reportage on the Crimean War, which he undertook at the request of Queen Victoria. The 360 inspired images that he brought back are remarkable for their technical mastery, and are an important development in war photo reportage.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death is part of this collection. The photograph shows a desolate ravine strewn with cannon balls. This place was named by the soldiers of the British army who had been defeated here by the Russians on many occasions.
The image offers a kind of visual equivalent to Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade. In it, the poet pays tribute to the six hundred British cavalrymen who died in this same valley on 25 October 1854, whilst denouncing the absurdity of the conflict. For ideological as well as technical reasons, there was no question of Fenton producing images of combat or of the dead. But the feeling of desolation that his image provokes is an eloquent symbol of the horror of war.
Fenton was sometimes accused of having set up his photograph by moving the cannon balls around. This is unlikely as the fighting raging around him would probably not have allowed him to do so.