Roger Fenton and the Fate of Images: A Journey and a Journal

Roger Fenton and the Fate of Images
A Journey and A Journal

by Arni Haraldsson

The dated entries that follow are excerpted from a journal I kept last summer when I travelled to Crimea in Ukraine in order to execute a photo project about, among other things, the appearance of the past within the present and the fate of certain images. The initial incentive stemmed from research concerning two military officers, British ensigns Brandon and Dawson, commissioned by the War Office in 1854 to document the Crimean War when Britain and France came to the Ottoman Empire’s defense against Russia. On the return journey, as a consequence of the negatives having been inadequately fixed, the images that Brandon and Dawson had obtained began to gradually disappear. The pair arrived in London with stacks of essentially worthless monochromatic glass-plates, displaying only the faint traces of their recordings. At the beginning of 1855, Roger Fenton was sent to Crimea by the British government, in part to correct the efforts of Brandon and Dawson, as well as to counter increasing criticism of the campaign. Roger Fenton was also not immune to technical difficulties, which affected numerous of his negatives, like some mysterious force come to wreak havoc across his landscape views or the faces of his sitters. Curiously, today these chemical veils (as evident in Fenton’s portrait of war artist William Simpson) convey the sense of war more effectively than Victorian censorship and propriety could ever have done, in as much as the campaign was tragically botched with much unnecessary loss of life.

Friday June 3, 2011
Amidst the crowd outside the Simferopol Airport secure area, I finally spot, much to my relief, a sign bearing my name. The driver, who is the spitting image of Sylvester Stallone, introduces himself as Costa and, in broken English, apologizes profusely for being late. Outside it is about 30 degrees. We load my luggage and camera equipment into the back of a sedan. Costa turns on the air conditioner and the radio and we are off. He complains about the potholes in the road; in response I mention the gigantic potholes in Kiev, large enough to swallow entire vehicles, as photographed by Boris Mikhailov. “Kiev is shithole,” says Costa.

An hour and a half later, Costa taps me on the shoulder and points toward the coastal mountain range in the far distance. Inkerman turns out to be a mere blink along the highway; still, the name resonates powerfully as one of the key sites associated with the Crimean War. Shortly after, we glimpse the Black Sea and Sevastopol harbour, littered with enough rusting cranes, railroad tracks, rows of warehouses and military ships as to appear almost a town unto itself. Aside from various monuments, the traces of a Russian past are most evident in the harbour. Indeed, it was only in 1996 that Sevastopol was opened to visitors; prior to that the Russians had the city sealed to all but official permit holders. Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet has now been told it has to leave.

The description of the place that Costa had given me enroute rings true: the town is quite beautiful and with no potholes; it has the feel of a European city with grand old buildings, wrought-iron fences, plenty of parks and tree-lined streets overlooking the sea. Yet there is something inconsistent: much of the architecture appears decrepit. Gradually, the abundance of stray cats and dogs becomes apparent. The apartment I am to rent is in the centre, at the top of a hill dominating the older part of the city and which Costa describes as full of “rich young people and very old poor people.” At the entrance gate, Costa jokingly points to a formidable looking hi-tech security lock with lots of buttons and then reaches around with his arm to unlock it. “Broken crap!” He pronounces the words as though uttering some voice-activated code. We walk through an overgrown garden, past a group of old men in their undershirts sitting around reading newspapers and old women in flower-patterned housecoats hanging laundry. At the end of a second building we enter a dank, dark stairwell reeking of onions and piss that, to my mind, resembles something from a Dostoyevsky novel. Thankfully, the apartment is spacious and modern with a tiny balcony overlooking part of the harbour.

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