War photography

The field at Antietam, American Civil War by Alexander Gardner, 1862.

War photography involves photographing armed conflict and its effects on people and places.



Roger Fenton was one of the first war photographers. He captured images of the Crimean War (1853–1856)

With the invention of photography in the 1830s, the possibility of capturing the events of war to enhance public awareness was first explored. Although ideally photographers would have liked to accurately record the rapid action of combat, the technical insufficiency of early photographic equipment in recording movement made this impossible. The daguerreotype, an early form of photography that generated a single image using a silver-coated copper plate, took a very long time for the image to develop and could not be processed immediately.

Since early photographers were not able to create images of moving targets, they recorded more sedentary aspects of war, such as fortifications, soldiers, and land before and after battle along with the re-creation of action scenes. Similar to battle photography, portrait images of soldiers were also often staged. In order to produce a photograph, the subject had to be perfectly still for a matter of minutes, so they were posed to be comfortable and minimize movement.

A number of daguerreotypes were taken of the occupation of Saltillo during the Mexican–American War, in 1847 by an unknown photographer, although not for the purpose of journalism.[1]

John McCosh, a surgeon in the Bengal Army, is considered by some historians to be the first war photographer known by name.[2][3] He produced a series of photographs documenting the Second Anglo-Sikh War from 1848–49. These consisted of portraits of fellow officers, key figures from the campaigns,[2] administrators and their wives and daughters, including Patrick Alexander Vans Agnew,[4]:911 Hugh Gough, 1st Viscount Gough; the British commander General Sir Charles James Napier; and Dewan Mulraj, the governor of Multan.[5][6] He also photographed local people and architecture,[6] artillery emplacements and the destructive aftermath.[4] McCosh later photographed the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852–53) where he photographed colleagues, captured guns, temple architecture in Yangon and Burmese people.[2]

The HungarianRomanian Carol Popp de Szathmàri took photographs of various officers in 1853 and of war scenes near Olteniţa and Silistra in 1854, during the Crimean War. He personally offered some 200 pictures albums to Napoleon III of France and Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom in 1855.[7]


The first official attempts at war photography were made by the British government at the start of the Crimean War. In 1854 Gilbert Elliott was commissioned to photograph views of the Russian fortifications along the coast of the Baltic Sea.

Versions of Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton, with and without cannonballs.

Roger Fenton was the first official war photographer and the first to attempt a systematic coverage of war for the benefit of the public.[4][8] Hired by Thomas Agnew, he landed at Balaclava in 1854. His photographs were probably intended to offset the general aversion of the British people to the war's unpopularity, and to counteract the occasionally critical reporting of correspondent William Howard Russell of The Times.[9][10] The photos were converted into woodblocks and published in The Illustrated London News. Due to the size and cumbersome nature of his photographic equipment, Fenton was limited in his choice of motifs. Because the photographic material of his time needed long exposures, he was only able to produce pictures of stationary objects, mostly posed pictures; he avoided making pictures of dead, injured or mutilated soldiers.

Fenton also photographed the landscape – his most famous image was of the area near to where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place. In letters home soldiers had called the original valley "The Valley of Death", so when in September 1855 Thomas Agnew put the picture on show as one of a series of eleven collectively titled Panorama of the Plateau of Sebastopol in Eleven Parts in a London exhibition, he took the troops' epithet, expanded it as The Valley of the Shadow of Death and assigned it to the piece.[11][12]

Further development

A photograph of the ruins of a palace with human skeletal remains in the foreground
The ruins of Sikandar Bagh palace showing the skeletal remains of rebels in the foreground, Lucknow, India, 1858, by Felice Beato.

Fenton left the Crimea in 1855, and was replaced by the partnership of James Robertson and Felice Beato. In contrast to Fenton's depiction of the dignified aspects of war, Beato and Robertson showed the destruction.[13] They photographed the fall of Sevastopol in September 1855, producing about 60 images.[14]

In February 1858, they arrived in Calcutta to document the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.[15] During this time they produced possibly the first-ever photographic images of corpses.[16] It is believed that for at least one of the photographs taken at the palace of Sikandar Bagh in Lucknow, the skeletal remains of Indian rebels were disinterred or rearranged to heighten the photograph's dramatic impact.

The interior of an earthen and wooden fort with dead bodies scattered around it
Interior of Fort Taku immediately after their capture in 1860, by Felice Beato.

In 1860 Beato left the partnership and documented the progress of the Anglo-French campaign during the Second Opium War. Teaming up with Charles Wirgman, a correspondent for The Illustrated London News, he accompanied the attack force travelling north to the Taku Forts. Beato's photographs of the Second Opium War were the first to document a military campaign as it unfolded, doing so through a sequence of dated and related images.[17] His photographs of the Taku Forts formed a narrative recreation of the battle, showing the approach to the forts, the effects of bombardments on the exterior walls and fortifications, and finally the devastation within the forts, including the bodies of dead Chinese soldiers.[17]

American Civil War photographer Samuel Cooley (1865).

During the American Civil War (1861–65), Haley Sims and Alexander Gardner began recreating scenes of battle in order to overcome the limitations of early photography with regard to the recording of moving objects. Their reconfigured scenes were designed to intensify the visual and emotional effects of battle.[18] Gardner and Mathew Brady rearranged bodies of dead soldiers during the Civil War in order to create a clear picture of the atrocities associated with battle.[19] In Soldiers on the Battlefield (1862) Brady produced a controversial tableau of the dead within a desolate landscape. This work, along with Alexander Gardner's 1863 work Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter[20] were images which, when shown to the public, brought home the horrific reality of war.[21]

Also during the American Civil War, Charleston photographer George S. Cook [22] captured what is likely and sometimes believed to be the world's first photographs of actual combat, during the Union bombardment of Confederate fortifications near Charleston – his wet-plate photographs taken under fire show explosions and Union ships firing at southern positions.

The Mangrullo (the watchtower) and the tent-darkroom of war photographer Javier López of Bate & Ca., by Javier López.

The first photographs of South American warfare (the Paraguayan War of 1865–1870) were published by the Montevideo firm of Bate & Cía. In June 1866 they commissioned the Uruguayan photographer Javier López[23] to travel to the field of battle. López used the wet-plate collodion process, making and developing his plates in a portable darkroom.[24] This was the first time[25] photography had covered South American warfare and his images became iconic.[26]

The Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878–80 was photographed by John Burke who traveled with the British forces. This was a commercial venture with the hope of selling albums of war photographs.

20th century

World War I was one of the first conflicts during which cameras were small enough to be carried on one's person. Canadian soldier Jack Turner secretly and illegally brought a camera to the battlefront and made photographs.[27]

Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917), photographed by soldier-photographer Jack Turner

In the 20th century, professional photographers covered all the major conflicts, and many were killed as a consequence. One of the most famous was Robert Capa who covered the Spanish Civil War, the D-Day landings[28] and the fall of Paris, and conflicts in the 1950s until his death by a landmine in Indochina in May 1954.

A Wehrmacht combat photographer on the Eastern Front, 1941.

The famous photograph of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in 1945 was taken by photojournalist, Joe Rosenthal.

Unlike paintings, which presented a single illustration of a specific event, photography offered the opportunity for an extensive amount of imagery to enter circulation. The proliferation of the photographic images allowed the public to be well informed in the discourses of war. The advent of mass-reproduced images of war were not only used to inform the public but they served as imprints of the time and as historical recordings.[29]

Mass-produced images did have consequences. Besides informing the public, the glut of images in distribution over-saturated the market, allowing viewers to develop the ability to disregard the immediate value and historical importance of certain photographs.[18] Despite this, photojournalists continue to cover conflicts around the world.

Profession today

War photographers during the Battle of Normandy.

Photographers who participate in this genre may find themselves placed in harm's way, and are sometimes killed trying to get their pictures out of the war arena.

Journalists and photographers are protected by international conventions of armed warfare, but history shows that they are often considered targets by warring groups — sometimes to show hatred of their opponents and other times to prevent the facts shown in the photographs from being known. War photography has become more dangerous with the advent of terrorism in armed conflict as some terrorists target journalists and photographers. In the Iraq War, 36 photographers and camera operators were abducted or killed during the conflict from 2003–2009.[30]

Several have even been killed by US fire; two Iraqi journalists working for Reuters were notably strafed by a helicopter during the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike, yielding a scandal when WikiLeaks published the video of the gun camera.[31]

War photographers need not necessarily work near active fighting; instead they may document the aftermath of conflict. The German photographer Frauke Eigen created a photographic exhibition about war crimes in Kosovo which focused on the clothing and belongings of the victims of ethnic cleansing, rather than on their corpses.[32] Eigen's photographs were taken during the exhumation of mass graves, and were later used as evidence by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.[33]

Iconic images

Chinese Eighth Route Army fighting the Japanese on the Great Wall, during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938. Photograph by Sha Fei.
A classic war photograph of the fire of anti-aircraft guns deployed near St. Isaac's cathedral during the defense of Leningrad in 1941.

See also



  1. Daguerrotypes of the Mexican–American War
  2. 1 2 3 Mary Warner Marien (2006). Photography: A Cultural History. London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 49. ISBN 978-1856694933.
  3. Kari Andén-Papadopoulos (2011). Amateur Images and Global News. Intellect Books. p. 45. ISBN 9781841506005.
  4. 1 2 3 John Hannavy (2007). Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-century Photography. Taylor & Francis. pp. 1467–1471. ISBN 9781135873264.
  5. "John McCosh". University of St Andrews. Retrieved 1 October 2015.
  6. 1 2 Roger Taylor; Larry John Schaaf (2007). Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840–1860. Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 121–124. ISBN 978-0300124057.
  7. Carol Popp de Szathmàri's 1854 war photos: http://archweb.cimec.ro/scripts/PCN/Clasate/detaliu.asp?k=0F09ED4E21424AA580A2C07E81236E42http://archweb.cimec.ro/scripts/PCN/Clasate/detaliu.asp?k=60BD72B84B1846309395BB55F437C925
  8. "Crimean War: First Conflict to Be Documented in Detail by Photography". Vintage Works Ltd.
  9. Gernsheim, Helmut; Gernsheim, Alison (1954). Roger Fenton, photographer of the Crimean War. London: Secker & Warburg. pp. 13–17. OCLC 250629696.
  10. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003; ISBN 0-374-24858-3)
  11. The valley, called the "North Valley" by the British military, was just less than a mile wide and about a mile and a quarter long: Woodham-Smith, Cecil (1953). The Reason Why. London: John Constable. p. 238. OCLC 504665313.
  12. Green-Lewis, Jennifer (1996). Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. pp. 126–7. ISBN 0-8014-3276-6.
  13. Baldwin, Gordon, Malcolm Daniel, and Sarah Greenough. All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852–1860. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. ISBN 1-58839-128-0. p. 21
  14. Broecker, William L., ed. International Center of Photography Encyclopedia of Photography. New York: Pound Press; Crown, 1984. ISBN 0-517-55271-X. p. 58.
  15. Harris, David. Of Battle and Beauty: Felice Beato's Photographs of China. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1999. ISBN 0-89951-101-5; ISBN 0-89951-100-7. p. 23
  16. Zannier, Italo. Antonio e Felice Beato. Venice: Ikona Photo Gallery, 1983. (Italian) OCLC 27711779. p. 447.
  17. 1 2 Lacoste, Anne. Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010. ISBN 1-60606-035-X. pp. 10-11.
  18. 1 2 Marien, Mary Warner, Photography: A Cultural History second edition (NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006), pp. 99, 111.
  19. "Antietam, Maryland. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Major General John A. McClernand: Another View". World Digital Library. 1862-10-03. Retrieved 2013-06-10.
  20. Alexander Gardner. Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, MoMA.org, Gettysburg from Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War, (1865). July 1863
  21. Stokstad, Marylyn, Art History vol 2 revised 2nd edition (NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005), 1009.
  22. Bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1863, sonofthesouth.net
  23. Until 1997 it was believed, wrongly, that the author of the Bate & Cīa photographs was Esteban García. The identity of the real author was discovered by Alberto del Pino Menck ("Javier López, fotógrafo de Bate y Cía. en la Guerra del Paraguay", Boletín Histórico del Ejército 294-297, 1997), cited in Fernando García, "Entre mosquitos, serpientes y pantanos", El País, 5 December 2014
  24. The plates were sensitive to blue light only. The darkroom was an orange tent.
  25. Bate did send a photographer to cover the Siege of Paysandú the year before, but he arrived after the fighting was over. He captured images of the ruined town and corpses in a street.
  26. Mauricio Bruno, Fotografía Militar, in Fotografía en Uruguay: historia y usos sociales 1840–1930, (2011, Montevideo), Centro Municipal de Fotografía, ISBN 978-9974-600-75-1; accessed online , 21 May 2015.
  27. CBC News, P.E.I. photographer's secret documentation of WW I goes on display, November 10, 2015, CBC News
  28. Video: Cameramen Ready For Invasion, 1944/05/25 (1944). Universal Newsreel. 1944. Retrieved February 21, 2012.
  29. Kriebel, Sabine, "Theories of Photography: A Short History", in James Elkins, ed., Photographic Theory (New York and London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 7, 8.
  30. Committee to Protect Journalists, July 23, 2008
  31. Video posted of Apache strike which killed Reuters employees, Agence France-Presse, Apr 5, 2010
  32. "Fundstücke (Found Objects), Kosovo 2000". National Gallery of Canada.
  33. "Exceptional Young Photographer – Frauke Eigen at the Berlin Gallery "Camera Work"". Deutsche Welle.

Further reading

  • Capa, Robert (1999). Heart of Spain: Robert Capa's photographs of the Spanish Civil War: from the collection of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. [Denville, N.J.]: Aperture Foundation, Inc. ISBN 0-89381-831-3
  • Harris, David (1999). Of battle and beauty: Felice Beato's photographs of China. Santa Barbara, California: Santa Barbara Museum of Art. ISBN 0-89951-101-5
  • Hodgson, Pat (1974). Early war photographs. Reading: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 0-85045-221-X
  • Katz, D. Mark (1991). Witness to an era: the life and photographs of Alexander Gardner: the Civil War, Lincoln, and the West. New York, N.Y.: Viking. ISBN 0-670-82820-3
  • James, Lawrence (1981). Crimea 1854-56: the war with Russia from contemporary photographs. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. ISBN 0-442-24569-6
  • Lewinski, Jorge (1978). The camera at war: a history of war photography from 1848 to the present day. London: W. H. Allen. ISBN 0-491-02485-1
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