In contemporary society, photography is often marginalized, featuring large spreads of people in compromising positions in order to sell clothing – or lack thereof. Whether we pick up a magazine or pass a billboard on the street, we are confronted with visual images that lend themselves to consumer purchase. That is why the new exhibition at the National Gallery, titled “All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852 – 1860” is a breath of fresh air.
Fenton’s groundbreaking career lasted only 10 years. However, this 91-photo exhibit showcases his profound impact on the development of photography and documents all aspects of life. The diversity of subject matter shows Fenton’s window to many different worlds – from landscapes to members of the royal family to war photographs, Fenton proved instrumental in breaking taboos to create meaningful, provocative work.
This exhibition comes as a refreshing alternative to contemporary photography, drawing a parallel between the intellectual and visual. As I perused the exhibit, I was immediately reminded of the correlation between poetry and the visual arts. Poetry and art both have the ability to manipulate emotion and message expressed as a creative entity. Fenton unabashedly acknowledges this relationship by deriving the show’s title from Wordsworth’s poem, “Tintern Abbey.”
In further investigation of the relationship between Fenton’s photography (in which he actually photographed Tintern Abbey) and Wordsworth’s poem, viewers can see how deeply one artist can be affected by another, despite the differences in craft. Wordsworth, a pioneer of the Romantic movement, in his efforts to illuminate the natural world in a serene, beautiful light, mirrors Fenton’s efforts to create Victorian photography that captures the essence of a person, place or thing.
Fenton’s images embody an exotic mystery with subjects depicted in unorthodox compositions, developed in black and white. An example of this effect is found in the photograph “Reclining Odalisque” (1858). A woman dressed in traditional odalisque garb reclines on a spread of Oriental carpets and is surrounded by urns as well as traditional ceremonial objects. In the photograph, the woman’s stare directly confronts the viewer while simultaneously looking directly past them. This level of detachment from the photographer reflects Fenton’s ability to observe and capture rather than exploit.
So why would Fenton have retired from his blooming photography career after only 10 short years? It seems that someone who produced such a significant body of work in such a short amount of time would have a wealth of ideas left to pursue. If Fenton enjoyed observing the world in so many of its manifestations, why stop when he had only just begun? We may never truly know, but the intellect and mystery of his work provides some parallels to his decision to stop sharing his observations of a world born from behind a lens, to perhaps pursue life as an active participant. Regardless, we are fortunate that Fenton decided to pause to share his sentiments, leaving behind a legacy not soon to be forgotten.
“All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton” will be at the West Building of the National Gallery, located at 7th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W. until Jan. 2, 2005.