Roger Fenton was born in Rochdale in 1819, the son of a local mill owner and banker. Fenton was educated as a painter, studying first with Charles Lucy and then in the 1840s with the French artist Paul Delaroche. Delaroche was of the opinion that "the camera would be an immense help to the painter in the search for literal truth". It was Delaroche's influence that was the genesis of Fenton's interest in photography.
With his painting career producing little success, Fenton returned to London and went into practice as a lawyer. He continued though to have an interest in the still developing art of photography. It was at this stage when the chemistry of print making was evolving, and he became very excited by the development in France of the Daguerreotype process. In 1852 he went on a journey to Russia and returned to England with images of that country which captured the interest of people at home. He also photographed Queen Victoria and her royal estates. In 1853 he proposed the formation of a photographic society and that year the Royal Photographic Society was created. Fenton acted as the Society's Secretary for 3 years.
Without question though, Fenton's enduring claim to fame is that he was the first official war photographer. In 1853 he was commissioned by the British Government to create a photographic record of the Crimean War. The government was under attack for its incompetence in the conduct of a war that was claiming large numbers of lives, mostly through disease and inadequate provision for the harsh conditions under which the troops were forced to live. The cold alone was responsible for a significant proportion of the deaths. In fact, only 20% of the British fatalities were the result of war wounds. In essence Fenton was dispatched in an effort by the government to improve its public relations.
Fenton took 350 images of the war which form this ground breaking collection. However, compared with war photographers who followed in Fenton's footsteps, his choice of subjects did little to inform us of the reality of the battlefield. Perhaps influenced by his actual mandate, Fenton reserved his documentation of the Crimea to images taken well away from any action. The photographs show carefully posed groups of officers and troops making the war look, in the words of Jennifer Wittrock, like "a walk in the park".
After the war Fenton created a series of images in his London Studio, using his friends as models, which became known as "The Oriental Suite". These images were intended to capture the mood of life in the East and were based on Fenton's memories of travelling in the area.
Fenton's career as a photographer lasted for 11 years and in the end he sold off his equipment and went back to his legal practice. Roger Fenton died in 1869 at the age of 49.