CRIMEA: In Volume 31 #3 Issue 123, Arni Haraldsson wrote: Roger Fenton and the Fate of Images

Posted in Bordernews by Border Crossings on April 4 2014

Roger Fenton, William Simpson, War Artist, 1855, salted paper print from wet collodion on glass negative. Source: One Hundred Photographs: A Collection by Bruce Bernard. Longdon: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2002.

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.

Arni Haraldsson, View of Sevastopol Harbour, 2011, silver gelatin print, 16 x 20”.

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.

Saturday June 4

Next day I make my way to the market but, amidst all the hustle and bustle, am too timid to make any purchases and instead observe closely the manner in which transactions are made. Fortunately, back in my neighborhood, I come across a little grocery store but, all the items are kept on the other side of a counter, well out of reach of customers. After much pointing and head shaking, I manage to walk out with a few basic staples, but not without having gained the attentions of a group of onlookers. I am learning, however, that “rough looking” does not translate the same here as it might in, say, a North American city. All the same, I decide to take precautions and I play the role of the nervous foreigner. Later on I make my way out to explore Sevastopol by night. The harbour is where the action is, with hundreds of people walking along the seawall. Couples wander by, the women often appearing tarty and the men lumpen. The place feels like a resort town, a sort of Atlantic City on the Black Sea. At evening’s end there is enough light to saunter through a quiet little park with its single monument dedicated to an heroic figure. On the other side of this statue rests a lone dog. As I approach he begins to growl and is unperturbed by my gesturing for him to get out of the way. I get the distinct feeling that this beast knows I am a foreigner. Nevertheless, I decide to play a little sparring match, darting to the side every now and then in an attempt to psyche him out. After 10 minutes I concede and back away, having then to circumnavigate the park to get back to the apartment. Sadly, I realize that this drawn out confrontation, although not particularly satisfying, may have been the most intense communication I have had with another being all that day.

Arni Haraldsson, Panorama Defense of Sevastopol 1854-1855, 2011, digital C-print, 17 x 22”.

Tuesday June 7

After breakfast, armed with map, water bottle and camera, I begin my trek along Sovetskaya Avenue in the direction of the Panorama Museum, Sevastopol. Located in the middle of an expansive park, the panorama painted by Franz Alekseyevich Roubaud is housed inside an imposing neo-classical building, designed specifically to accommodate a 360-degree scene depicting a single day (June 6, 1855) in the Crimean War. On that day, the Russians managed to repel the French and British troops, effectively preventing them from taking the city, at least until later that September. I thought the panorama was extremely well painted, with sculpted objects in the foreground and lit mostly by diffused natural light. Since I had purchased a special ticket in order to be able to photograph inside, I was delighted when a dozen or more young soldiers appeared. With the aid of a flash I was able to show them, or rather their backs, standing at attention against a particularly dramatic portion of the panorama as they huddled together to listen to their guide, an attractive middle-aged woman, presumably recounting the famous scenes pertaining to the battle blazing before their eyes. More than 150 years separate these soldiers from the fall of Sevastopol and whatever future schism in which they might imagine themselves becoming engaged. Outside, in the blinding noonday sun, I was struck by the use of Crimean War cannon balls as decorative motifs, adorning the tops of various columns and posts surrounding the building. A bit further into the park I noticed several canons and redoubts across a short gully where some figures in period costume stood posing for tourists. And so, like a good tourist, I began snapping a few pictures, but at a distance and from behind the bushes, so as to simulate something of the look of battle.

Roger Fenton, View of Cemetery on Cathcart’s Hill, plate 10 from The Photographic Panorama of the Plateau of Sevastopol, April 1855, salted paper print, 8.75 x 13.625”. Source: Gordon Baldwin, Malcolm Daniel and Sarah Greenough. All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852-1860. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.

Thursday June 9

After much searching I found the spot where Fenton had made an extended panorama, consisting of 11 plates, of a stretch of land that had been grubbed of all vegetation to provide fuel for the undersupplied army. No doubt, he thought himself fortunate to have come across this single vantage point that allowed for a fluid 360-degree radial view of the whole valley. He must have worked hard to avoid any sequential discontinuities, pleased with how each view making up the series connected with its adjacent image. The completed piece leads the eye to promenade from the English encampment, across the battlefield to the endless expanse of the steppe, the raw, scraped and bludgeoned land around Sevastopol, to finally terminate with the bleak graves on Cathcart’s Hill. By thus segmenting the surrounding landscape into 11 frameable sections, Fenton simultaneously produced a cohesive but fractured earth. He would have observed that the various stretches of road between Sevastopol and Balaklava, while appearing to head toward different vanishing points, were in fact one and the same. Just as the flayed skin of an animal may be viewed as a single surface while the original form of a living animal cannot, but must instead be reconstructed in the imagination, Fenton had similarly skinned the landscape, flattening out its raw three-dimensionality to conform to the singularity of the picture plane. By having done so, he would have further recognized that on view were not three but four dimensions: the whole of those two scorching hot days spent up on Cathcart’s Hill with his assistant, Marcus Sparling, had been reduced to a fleeting slice of time—the semblance of an instant. How was it, Fenton wondered in his diary, that the representation of a thing could so endlessly fascinate him, that the imitation offered more of a promise to the hungry eye than the original ever could? He would not allow himself to attribute such promise and attraction to skill alone, certainly not his own. To the medium, then? To the apparatus? Perhaps it was the seductive lure of resolution. Or was it that this thing, this black art, as it was then commonly known, simply invited you not so much to see the world as to dream it? The question then concerned not what was there but, rather, what could have been put there in place of something else. In the evening I read from Leo Tolstoy’s diary about how he arrived in Sevastopol on the 19th of November, 1854 with the 3rd Light Battery, and soon thereafter fell back into his bad habits of wenching and gambling, eventually losing, at shtoss (an old fashioned card game), the family house in which he had been born at Yasnaya Polyana.

Monday June 13

The morning turned out to be something of an exercise in frustration. After a bit of searching I eventually did find the Internet cafe located inside the post office on Bolshaya Morskaya Street. Having paid for a half-hour session I then spent the next 20 minutes dealing with a barrage of explicit porn sites that, much to my embarrassment, were multiplying on the computer screen at a furious rate. Afterward I went to the bus stop and waited for the No. 12; eventually it arrived but did not stop. The next No. 12 I attempted to wave down but to no avail, and the next, until a woman and her daughter passing by said something so that I was made to understand that the No. 12 stops further up the street. When I finally did catch the No. 12 it was in a mad scrabble alongside dozens of other passengers all trying to get on or off at once. After the bus had begun to move I felt someone poking me in the ribs repeatedly and turned to see a shabby looking woman begging for money. No idea how much to give her, I simply shook my head in hopes of brushing her off. Another series of jabs to the ribs, this time much harder. Seeing an opening between two bodies I made my way toward the front of the bus with the woman in hot pursuit. She then reached into her filthy flower-patterned rag-of-an-apron and produced a wad of half-torn tickets. Utterly stunned, I pulled out a handful of coins from which she snatched one greev. Walking away, she uttered something to no one in particular but which had the effect of sending numerous nearby passengers into loud guffaws of laughter. In a desperate attempt to save face I feigned even louder laughter as though to suggest that, after all was said and done, the brunt of the joke was not me but rather language itself. This they did not find particularly amusing; instead the consensus seemed to be that the foreigner may be insane. Suddenly the bus came to a screeching halt, sounding as though the engine had fallen into the street. The passengers began to grumble and were soon yelling at one another. The doors swung open, the driver ran away, and soon everyone was scurrying off in all directions. I had not a clue where we were but followed two old ladies carrying giant plastic bags exploding with produce and linens. I whipped out my Russian map and pointed to my desired destination: Balaklava. They indicated for me to follow them but then split off in different directions. I went after the short one, who turned to me to indicate that I should follow the tall one. We were soon on a minibus but got off after only a couple of stops. My trusty guide signalled for me to stay put while she went over to talk to an official in a uniform who periodically turned to glare at me. I was to follow the official, who reluctantly led me to the No. 9 bus.

Arni Haraldsson, Black Sea Coast From Above Balaklava, 2011, silver gelatin print, 16 x 20”.

As I approached Balaklava, the banks on either side of the narrow harbour appeared much steeper than I had imagined. In the distance I could make out the remaining towers of the Genoese Fort. A side road beckoned but then terminated at a set of stone steps leading up the hillside. The general impression of the town is one of prosperity and comfort. Quite a contrast to the mid-19th century description, especially after spotting a few bathers in the harbour and recalling Fenton’s description of the place as an absolute cesspool littered with all types of waste—human and animal. The climb up was steep but worth the effort. At the top of the ridge, the Black Sea seen against the costal range was so sublimely beautiful as to bring tears to my eyes. I climbed among the windswept ruins, as had Fanny Duberly (wife of Captain Henry Duberly of the 8th Hussars) and Fenton, the two seeming at times so vivid in my imagination as to risk becoming characters in a novel. After photographing along the ridge, I began the descent toward the mouth of the harbour where I spotted a few dolphins. The stillness and heat of the day made it hard to imagine the hurricane of November 1854 that had virtually wiped out the British ships moored in the harbour. As evenings set over Sevastopol one of the pleasures that my tiny balcony afforded was a chance to observe and listen to the swallows dart swiftly about. What joy to see them turning every which way, becoming a swirling cloud of black specks against the darkening, orange-yellow sky. With night approaching, their chatter is replaced by the boom and brass of a marching military band echoing up from the waterfront.

Roger Fenton, Marshal Pelissier, June 6th 1855, matt silver print, 8.125 x 6”.

Wednesday June 15

I got on the No. 107, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake, though it did provide an inexpensive tour of the eastern part of the city. Eventually I alighted at Kruglaia Bay where the French army had had their base camp. Fenton visited on several occasions, once to make a portrait of Field Marshal Jean Jacques Pélissier who had assumed command of the French troops in the spring of 1855 after General Canrobert had resigned in disgrace following the so-called Kerch fiasco. A sort of collective madness had overtaken both the French and English troops, culmunating in the rape and massacre of civilians. Pélissier was generally well regarded among his men and had a reputation for being blunt, aggressive and determined. Indeed, he had made it quite clear that although he was willing to oblige Fenton by sitting for his portrait, he nevertheless had little extra time to spare. Taking a minute to study Pélissier’s countenance, Fenton must have been struck by what he saw: the person whom he had glimpsed some weeks earlier performing a feat of agility could not possibly be the same corpulent figure seated before his camera. He looked every bit the ruffian, a “wild boar” according to Fenton, short, with a stupid, cruel face. He had no neck and his head was quite large, covered with very short, white bristles that contrasted with his leathery skin, bronzed over the years by the hot African sun. The Marshal’s tight-fitting uniform, lined with a row of excessively polished brass buttons, had the effect of transforming his extruding round belly into a perfectly overstuffed pincushion. His arms were short and stiff, his fingers like sausages. So this was the man himself, Fenton must have thought, the man who, according to the camp rumour mill, had only the day before sent General Achille Bazaine to Kinburn where he would most likely meet his demise, so that he could continue his affair with Madame Bazaine uninterrupted. Fenton had been introduced to this young Spanish beauty, known as Soledad, who was said to have arrived in Crimea complete with a queen-sized wardrobe and a grand piano.

Arni Haraldsson, Sapun Gor, near Sevastopol, 2011, silver gelatin print, 20 x 16”.

Thursday June 16th

Brandishing a handwritten sign bearing the Russian name for Sapun Gor (canyH rop), I was directed to the No. 72 bus. Beyond the Novy Poselok suburb, the terminus point turned out to be very near the British Memorial site. Below the WWII diorama was a platform offering a spectacular vista onto Fiediuniny Vysoty, the so-called “Valley of Death,” where the famously disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade took place on the 15th of June, 1854. To this day, the valley remains relatively unchanged, consisting mostly of vineyards and roadways, with Balaklava visible in the far distance. Curiously, there is little reference to the Crimean War, but there is plenty of WWII memorabilia, including an army truck and tank to pose against and, of course, the gargantuan memorial with its eternal flame. Camera in hand, I wandered the nearby woods in search of alternate views of the valley below, where I came across a processional way lined with trees standing rigid at attention and stretching for a kilometre or more. With not a soul in sight and silence reigning supreme, the scene was made all the more eerie by the way in which nature had been made to conform to such measured perfection.

Arni Haraldsson, Fountain at Monastery of St. George, Crimea, 2011, silver gelatin print, 11 x 14”.

Saturday June 18

The high cement walls hugging the dusty road on either side formed a powerful wind tunnel. After the last house, the landscape opened onto a grassy field and eventually, far below the cliff-side, the sea. At the edge, to the right, lay Cape Fiolent and to the left, the Monastery of St. George with its golden cupola shimmering against the deep blue of the Black Sea. After having been beaten about by the wind while attempting a photograph of the Cape, I turned toward the monastery. Along a narrow path I encountered a group of figures on a pilgrimage of sorts, however, not to the monastery ahead but rather to the beach below. A cluster of buildings, some abandoned and others undergoing renovation, made up the monastery. The church appeared to have been recently painted white, as did its interior, which was dominated by the central figures of Christendom, rendered in a particularly garish style characteristic of Eastern Orthodoxy. Hugging the cliffside directly below the monastery and running the length of a massive stone wall was a little garden, and that, too, was being redone. Here, I saw what must once have been the drinking fountain that had so delighted Fenton and Mrs. Duberlay, among others. Two metal pipes protruding from the wall, pouring into a couple of stone troughs, were all that remained of the fountain today. Above the pipes was a stylized relief-like pediment supporting a carving of St. George, charging ahead on horseback, about to slay an unseen dragon. Outside the garden, having paid my respects to the pleasantly demanding resident cat, I met the glare of two monks who, still today, looked as “mean” as they had to Mrs. Duberlay in 1855. Late in the day the rain that had long threatened over Sevastopol finally did arrive, not as the torrent expected but more a sprinkling, enough to soothe and replenish the otherwise greener-than-green vegetation all around. The evening was punctuated by a major explosion that gave me quite a fright but turned out to be only fireworks. The lingering echo allowed me to imagine that I had perhaps experienced something akin to what Fenton had heard toward the close of the fighting and the fall of the city.

Arni Haraldsson is a Vancouver-based artist and writer and an Associate Professor of Photography at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

To order Issue 123: Dreams and the Spaces Inbetween, click here

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