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All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852–1860
At the Getty Center, February 1–April 24, 2005

November 16, 2004

Los Angeles—The international touring exhibition All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852–1860 will make its only West Coast stop at the Getty Center from February 1–April 24, 2005. This first American survey of works by the great British photographer features 94 prints drawn from 17 public and private collections in four countries, including the Getty's extensive holdings. It showcases Fenton's legacy of works, from his atmospheric landscapes and magnificent architectural studies to his lush royal portraits and moving documentation of the Crimean war.

All the Mighty World is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The exhibition, which started its tour at the National Gallery, will travel to the Metropolitan Museum and to Tate Britain after showing at the Getty Center. It is supported by an indemnity from the federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

One of the most important figures in 19th-century photography, Roger Fenton (1819–1869) exerted a profound influence on the medium despite a career that lasted only ten years. He left behind a widely varied body of work that, with its diversity of subject matter, poetic content, and highly polished execution, represents one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of photography. He is also remembered as the founder of the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society) and for his continual efforts to elevate the status of photography to the realm of fine art, which had long-lasting effects on how the medium evolved.

Trained as a lawyer, Fenton took up photography in 1851, learning to use a camera in France, where he had earlier studied painting. Soon after, he embarked on a series of visual adventures, beginning with a trip to Russia to document the construction of a bridge. The salted paper prints that he made from his negatives of Saint Petersburg and Moscow are the earliest surviving photographic images of those cities. The following year, using a refurbished carriage that served as a portable darkroom, Fenton made the first of many photographic forays to a variety of sites in England, Wales, and Scotland. His subjects were majestic architectural studies of ruined abbeys, cathedrals, and country houses, as well as painterly landscapes. These make up the largest body of his work and were widely and consistently praised by the critics of the day, who celebrated Fenton's mastery of light and perspective and his depiction of space receding toward the horizon.

A meeting with Queen Victoria in 1852 had important consequences for his career. He came away with commissions for portraits of the Queen and her family. And in 1855, with crucial royal support, Fenton went to the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea where England, France, and Turkey were fighting a war against Russia. Often under conditions of great difficulty, Fenton produced more than 300 collodion-on-glass negatives depicting generals and other soldiers and panoramas of battle sites. His haunting studies of the chaos and bleakness of the front were the first substantial body of photographs to document any war. His Crimean picture Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) has long been considered a masterful metaphor for the devastation and desolation of war. Made in a wide ravine that the Russians heavily shelled, Fenton's image shows the barren and nearly featureless landscape randomly littered with cannon balls.

Toward the close of his career, to emphasize the affinity between painting and photography, Fenton experimented with genre scenes and still lifes, two subjects closely associated with fine art. Among these are a group of about 40 Orientalist photographs, which  staged imagined scenes of life in the Islamic world. Fenton posed a professional model and some friends in costumes of inconsistent origins and dressed his improvised sets with a variety of props.  In spite of the artifice, Fenton's audience found these tableaux truthful, while modern audiences will see in them a beguiling picture of the Victorians themselves.

Fenton retired from photography abruptly in 1862, saddened by the death of his only son and that of his assistant. After ten years as the most respected photographer in Britain, he returned to law. His legacy is a trove of masterpieces. The application of his acute visual intelligence to a surprisingly varied set of subjects gave his career a wider scope than any of his contemporaries. But, above all, it is his visual ingenuity and the poetic content of his work that has insured the survival of his reputation.

Note to editors:  Images available on request.

John Giurini
Getty Communications Dept.

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