William Russell was to provide eye-witness accounts of all the major actions: Alma, the long siege of Sebastopol, Balaclava and the Charge of the Light Brigade, Inkerman, Redan and the rest. Russell’s telegraphic dispatches brought home to the British public the reality of war and, in no small degree, the failings of the British military command: in organising proper supply of food, clothing and equipment; in communications through the hierarchy of command; and in care of the casualties of battle and the much greater casualties that were wasted through disease.
It was perhaps in reaction to Russell that Roger Fenton, the recent founder of the Photographic Society, was encouraged to go to the Crimea by friends and patrons that included the Secretary of State for War and Prince Albert. His images were intended to counter the unpopularity of the war. They were published as woodblocks in the far less critical Illustrated London News.
William Russell went on to India to witness the re-capture of Lucknow and thence to Washington, where he stayed from 1867 to 1863. He would later publish his diaries of India, the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
In the year that William Russell arrived in the Crimea, Alexander Gardner, sometime owner and editor of the Glasgow Sentinel, moved with his family to the United States. Pursuing an interest in photography, he was well placed to create a photographic record of the Civil War and was soon accorded an official capacity. A two volume edition of hand-mounted prints, Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, was published in 1866. By this time Gardner had photographed Abraham Lincoln on several occasions and had documented the President’s funeral. He photographed the conspirators involved with the assassination and was the only photographer allowed at their execution.
Russell laid the foundations of an honourable, if intermittent, tradition of speaking truth to power. Fenton and Gardner played a more questionable role, where the boundaries between reportage and propaganda were blurred. Interestingly, both photographers have been accused of manipulation and fabrication.
Russell, Fenton and Gardner are significant figures in the development of a journalism on the cusp of technological progress. The electric telegraph lent the written word a new immediacy, although photography as reportage was more constrained, by process, distance and reprographics. Both Fenton and Gardner worked from horse-drawn workshops. Materials required long exposures: the action shot was some way off! The results in whatever form had to be transported physically from battlefield to point of distribution. And there was as yet no way of translating continuous tone to half-tone other than through the intermediary of the engraver.
But photo-journalism had begun the long path towards maturity. Cameras became smaller and more portable. Film replaced glass, roll film replaced dark slides, colour sensitivity and emulsion speeds increased. Aspiration was supported by scientific method. New processes allowed direct reproduction of photographic images in the print media of the day. Photography itself matured through the efforts of inspirational practitioners and through cross-fertilisation with a vibrant and multifarious 20th Century art scene. Magazines dedicated to photo-journalism helped develop a pictorial story-telling culture through social awareness, a humanistic ethos and a muscular aesthetic. By the 1930s these elements had fused into a powerful tool for mass communication … in time for the Spanish Civil War and the wars and turmoil that followed.
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