(The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu)
Roger Fenton was one of those giants of l9th-Century photography whose images
most people have only seen reproduced in books. The rarely exhibited Oriental
Suite, with its se-ductive recreations of "mysterious" Turkish
life, offers Museum visitors a captivating introduction to this gifted artist.
Fenton's life is almost as interesting as his photographs. Born into a privileged position in British society, he was a lawyer by training. Yet, he was to become one of the main founders of the Photographic Society of London in 1853, and one of the leaders in trying to establish photography as a fine art. For all of his influence, he was an "amateur" who only began studying photography in the late 1840's and who in 1862, without giving a reason, sold all of his equipment and returned to his law practice. Yet during that brief 15-year span, he had an indelible impact upon the medium.
Fenton's artistic roots come from studying with Paul Delaroche in Paris in 1841. Delaroche was one of France's most successful artists, one who continued the Romantic and oriental styles of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugene Delacroix, and Theodore Gericault. Delaroche's The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1834, is one of the most haunting paintings I have ever seen. In fact, in 1839, Delaroche proclaimed that the camera would be an immense help to the painter in the search for "literal truth." It was in this environment that Fenton was introduced to photography.
Fenton's varied career included portraits of Queen Victoria and her royal estates, and a trip to Kiev, Russia in 1854 to document the building of a bridge. His most famous images are those he made of the Crimea War in 1855. These "first" war photos begin to strip away the veneer of romanticism and adventure that had surrounded warfare. It was a harbinger of the work by Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O'Sullivan, and Mathew Brady that would chronicle our own Civil War.
The images that the Getty is exhibiting from the Oriental Suite show Europe's fascination with with the exotic world of Islam and the Near East. Long a favorite subject of painters, in 1858 Fenton created a stunning series of portraits in his London studio using models and friends recreating the mood of distant Turkey. The camera opened up the world to armchair adventurers (just as documentaries do today). His work recalls the spirit of such famous paintings as Ingre's Grande Odalisque (1814) and Delacroix's The Death of Sardanapalus (l 826), both of which looked into the sensual world of the harem. Images such as Pasha and Bayadere, Seated Odalisque and Musician and Dancer allow us to peer into a private and forbidden world where women were available for the entertainment of men without moral constraint. It is a titillating glimpse, especially considering the restraints on sexuality in Victorian England.
As one who had traveled to the East, Fenton could create an environment complete with decorations that gave the illusion of documentary fact. They are wonderfully crafted photographs that use the juxtaposition of light and dark to create dramatic tableaux. With In the Name of the Prophet, Alms, we are able to see evidence of Fenton's formal training as a painter. The drama of the moment is heightened by the black background out of which a seated figure emerges, forcing us to focus our attention on this trio. This "wealthy" seated figure is framed by the "poor beggar" on one side and the woman dressed in white on the other. The three form a triangle, a popular device in painting which gives solidity and structure to the image. Also, while the two men have eye contact, the woman looks away from the transaction. It is a powerful scene of charity in the name of God.
The exotic costumes of the models and the objects that surround them create a world of intrigue and mystery. In the hands of a lesser photographer, these would be just boring studio dramas. But with Fenton's imaginative eye and artistic talent, we are left with visions that even a hundred years later can captivate the eye.