So how can collectors on lower budgets own something by the man regarded as the first real war photographer?
The March 9 Dominic Winter (20% buyer's premium) sale featuring the John Hannavy collection of Victorian photography suggested more modest prices – of under £1500 – are possible for Rochdale-born Fenton’s work.
As Albury says, in the photograph collecting market “prices generally depend on the condition and the tonal contrasts. The ones we had were generally quite average in condition with a few slightly better ones, so prices were good for what we had.”
Hannavy is an academic with wide-ranging interests who has lectured and written books on photography. He curated The Camera Goes to War – the first exhibition devoted to Crimean War photography – for the Scottish Arts Council in 1974, and his first monograph Roger Fenton of Crimble Hall was published in 1975. In a spot of downsizing he auctioned items from his collection including 31 Fenton images in 15 lots.
Fenton’s views of the Crimean War (1853-56) are regarded as the first extensive selection of war photos from the field of conflict.
Given the rudimentary cameras of the time, none were taken in action but they nonetheless startled readers of magazines and newspapers when first reproduced. Together with assistant Marcus Sparling, and using a darkroom in a wagon, he eventually took around 360 images.
Hannavy’s version of The Valley of the Shadow of Death, named after Tennyson’s famous poem about the Charge of the Light Brigade, sold for a mid-estimate £1350, while another well-known view, the Head of Harbour, Balaclava, 1856, took £1400 against an estimate of £200-300.
As the war stagnated, many of Fenton’s subjects ended up being more mundane camp scenes. They show groups of soldiers full of personality. As Albury says, in such shots “the poses and groups show real human expression”.
One 1856 photo even features Fenton himself in the uniform of a French soldier, a Zouave, 2nd Division. Only two or three views of the photographer are known. This print sold at £1100.
Albury says Fenton’s work is primarily bought by photo enthusiasts: “People will buy Fentons without necessarily having a great interest in the Crimean War. He is definitely a cultish kind of photographer. He holds a command of people’s gaze which is quite unusual.
“It crosses internationally as well. What I like about that commercially is what the French, the British or Americans think can be different. If you get them competing against each other you can get interesting results.”