The valley of death

The first war photograph

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With a single equivocal sweep of his arm, British Army Captain Louis Edward Nolan sentenced 670 men to almost certain death. On October 25, 1854, he arrived at the tent of Lord Lucan, Commander of two British Cavalry Brigades. One, the Heavy Brigade, earned only passing mention in the annals. The other, the Light Brigade, was about to descend into utmost hell. The cavalry forces had the task of supporting the British advance on Sevastopol, the ultimate prize of the Crimean war, but in their path—dug in along both sides and the far end of a shallow valley—waited 20 battalions of infantry, covered by more than 50 artillery pieces.

Nolan carried orders from Commander Lord Raglan “to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns… Immediate.” When Lucan asked just which guns Raglan meant, Nolan gesticulated towards the massed Russian guns in the valley. In reality, Raglan simply wanted the Light Brigade to harry retreating Russian gunners on the Causeway Heights to the south of the valley, an almost routine skirmish for the unit. Instead, they mounted their horses and charged directly into unthinkable carnage.

The following year, the Army hired photographer Roger Fenton to document the Crimean campaign—arguably the first ever act of professional photojournalism. His brief was clear: the British public were not to see any corpses—enemy or otherwise. Instead, Fenton mostly photographed British Officers in their finery, well behind the lines. He was also to shoot landscapes to provide a sense of location. On the April 4, 1955, he wrote of a place so littered with cannonballs that it “… passed all imagination. Ground shot and shell lay like a stream at the bottom of the hollow all the way down. You could not walk without treading upon them.”

On April 23, he took his mule-drawn darkroom cart to the vale later known from his captions as The Valley of the Shadow of Death. At one point he came under fire, and had to retreat to a new location farther from the lines. Even there, the odd shot came rolling down the slopes to his feet. He took, as far as we know, just two photos (which still took him and his assistant an hour and a half). One shows the valley road strewn with cannonballs. The other does not. The first picture—one of the very first known war photographs—was published widely, and became an icon.

The second has served only to stoke debate for decades about whether Fenton embellished the first picture by placing cannonballs on the road to emphasise the impression of heavy bombardment. Which one did he shoot first? It follows that if he shot the one with the road covered in cannonballs first, the icon is a genuine one. If he arrived to find the road clear, he’s guilty of the first faked war photo.

It’s only fair to ask why he would do such a thing. Some, like Fenton biographer Ulrich Keller, have claimed he did it to make his own situation appear more perilous, to aggrandise his assignment. Others say it was essentially an aesthetic contrivance. Optical analysis which found that stones on the road in one picture are shown lying in the ditch in the second has been cited as proof that Fenton in fact moved the cannonballs for effect. But Fenton himself observed that it was common practice for soldiers to recover shot cannonballs so they could be re-used against the enemy that fired them. Was it possible that he photographed the littered road just in time, before soldiers cleared it?

Fenton still has defenders in high places, like Gordon Baldwin, one-time curator at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, who insists there was no manipulation. He points out that a man under artillery fire would be unlikely to start lugging very heavy cannonballs about just to enhance a photograph. “I don’t think it was like him to have… falsified an image in that way,” he told researcher Errol Morris for a New York Times article. “I don’t think he had an idea about… the symbolic value of the photograph.”

Faked or not, Fenton’s picture is still compelling—testimony to the madness and savagery of indiscriminate bloodshed.

It is the opening shot in the annals of war photography. It came first, and it will not be surpassed.

And it’s perhaps only slightly lessened by the fact that the Light Brigade never galloped down Fenton’s valley. The scene of that carnage, where Russian fusillades cut down 118 men and 335 horses, lies at least 50 kilometres to the southeast, where it will be forever known as The Valley of Death, from Tennyson’s epic poem. Fenton’s location, although labeled The Valley of the Shadow of Death, appears to have no other name at all.