The British Library Homepage
homeHome  >   Online Gallery  >   Online exhibitions  >   Features  >   Historic Photographs  >  

Historic Photographs

The Image of War

Documenting the chaos and unpredictability of conflict posed almost insuperable challenges to the early photographer. Bulky equipment, complex chemical manipulations and, critically, the length of exposures generally required in the early years of photography, delayed its effective use in the recording of fast-moving and unposable events. It was to be several decades before instantaneous records of actual conflict would become a practical possibility, but despite these limitations, the battlefield exercised a continuing fascination on photographers anxious to memorialise history in the making. And if Roger Fenton's Crimean photographs, with their gentlemanly and relaxed portraits, failed to capture - and indeed distorted - the true experience of the battlefield, many of these sombre images convey a powerfully graphic evocation of the aftermath of desolation and destruction brought in its train. The posing and arrangement of subjects for photographic effect were not unique to the nineteenth century and while their value as historical records needs to be assessed in the context of the technical limitations of photography at the time, they remain a compelling witness to the most traumatic catalyst of social change.

Roger Fenton, 1855

Fanny Duberly, Camp before Sebastopol, Enlarged image
Fanny Duberly, Camp before Sebastopol,
Add. MS 47218A f.147
Roger Fenton, Fanny Duberly, Camp before Sebastopol, 15 April 1855
Albumen print

This portrait of Frances Isabella Duberly, with her husband Captain Henry Duberly of the 8th Royal Irish Hussars, was sent to her sister Selina, in April 1855. In her letter she comments: 'I send you a photograph of Bobs. In his picture he has only 3 legs - which is a libel on the old ruffian, for he has four, but he was taken unbeknown, and we were none of us prepared. I was obliged to be taken on his back, to hide the mange spots about the saddle with my habit skirt. There have been an incredible number of copies struck off and sold, as I hear, at least every man I meet seems to have one, and Fenton would not charge us anything for it, I being the only lady. If it appears at Ackermans [who marketed Fenton's photographs in London], I hope he will send mother prints, shewing that old villain's other foreleg...Henry's beard too will astonish you, the old brute knew he was going to have his picture taken and stood all no how on purpose to spite me...'

Felice Beato, 1860

Interior of the North Taku Fort, immediately after its capture Enlarged image
Interior of the North Taku Fort, immediately after its capture
Photo 353 (8)
Felice Beato, Interior of the North Taku Fort, immediately after its capture, 21 August 1860
Albumen print

Felice Beato's photographic career spans the whole of the second half of the nineteenth century, during which he established an enduring reputation as a photographer of conflict. After working in the Middle East, he travelled to India in 1858 to photograph the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, moving on from there to China, where he produced a graphic record of the Second Anglo-Chinese War. He later worked as a photographer in Japan, Korea, and the Sudan, before finally settling in Burma for the last part of his career. In common with many photographers, Beato is known on at least one instance to have re-arranged a scene for dramatic effect, and on the occasion of this photograph a witness noted that 'Signor Beato was there in great excitement, characterising the group as 'beautiful' and begging that it might not be interfered with until perpetuated by his photographic apparatus.'

Unknown photographer, 1870-71

The Gallery of Louis XIII at Versailles Enlarged image
The Gallery of Louis XIII at Versailles
Maps 184.p.1 (62)
Unknown photographer, The Gallery of Louis XIII at Versailles, used as a hospital, winter of 1870-71
Albumen print

Elaborately mounted within decorative borders extolling Prussian military prowess, this is one of a large series of prints made by an unidentified German photographer recording the progress of the Franco-Prussian War, from the battlefields of Alsace to the German occupation of Versailles. The first 'modern' European war was also the first to be extensively photographed, at least in its aftermath, by both German and French photographers, and surviving images paint a graphic picture of the devastating swiftness of the German campaign. In this series, a detailed record is also given of the Palace of Versailles, where, on 18 January 1871, the German Empire was proclaimed.

Timothy H O'Sullivan, 1863

Wagon park, Brandy Station, Enlarged image
Wagon park, Brandy Station
1784.a.13 (54)
Timothy H O'Sullivan, Wagon park, Brandy Station, 1863
Albumen print

The massive photographic documentation that survives from the American Civil War was largely the result of Matthew Brady's determination to produce a comprehensive record of the conflict from the Union side. For this project, Brady hired a large team of photographers, who in four years produced over 8000 photographs; although technology was insufficiently advanced to record scenes of battle, his photographers' images of battlefield carnage were sufficiently shocking for the New York Times to report that 'Mr Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war.' This view is one of the one hundred photographs published in 1866 in Alexander Gardner's two-volume Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War.

John Burke, 1879

The Upper Bala Hissar from the Gate above the Residency, Kabul Enlarged image
The Upper Bala Hissar from the Gate above the Residency, Kabul
Photo 430/3 (4)
John Burke, The Upper Bala Hissar from the Gate above the Residency, Kabul, 1879
Albumen print

The Afghan acceptance of a Russian embassy in Kabul precipitated the first phase of the Second Afghan War; the subsequent murder of the British envoy Sir Louis Cavagnari and the destruction of the British Residency in the capital led to a full-scale invasion, culminating in the British occupation of the Afghan capital in 1879. This view looks towards the Bala Hissar, or Citadel of Kabul. The commercial photographer John Burke enjoyed a quasi-official status during the conflict, accompanying the British forces throughout the war and producing a comprehensive record of the campaign. On his return to India, nearly 400 of his photographs, which also include portraits of Afghan 'types' and scenic and architectural views, were made available through his catalogues.

Unknown photographer, 1863

Mr Breton's house in Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico Enlarged image
Mr Breton's house in Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico
Maps 20.c.6 (22)
Unknown photographer, Mr Breton's house in Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico, during the siege of 1863
Albumen print

Puebla de Los Angeles was the headquarters of the Mexican Army at the time of the French invasion of 1861. It was here that General Ignacio Zaragoza's unexpected defeat of the French in May 1862 led to the renaming of the city as Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza. A year later, after a two month siege, the city was re-taken by the French and occupied by them until 1867, when the execution of the Emperor Maximilian signalled the end of French ambitions in Central America. This photograph comes from a scarce portfolio of 22 views recording the condition of the city during the siege of 1863. The collection is prefaced by a map of the city prepared by the engineer Josť Joaquin Arriaga, who may also have been the photographer.

Further pages from the project:

Photographic Processes Photographic Processes
The world in focus The World in Focus
Exploration and Archaeology Exploration and Archaeology
The image of war The Image of War
Making the modern world Making the Modern World
In the public eye In the Public Eye

Top of Page Top of Page

Discover more:
Photographic Processes
The World in Focus
Exploration and Archaeology
The Image of War
Making of the Modern World
In the Public Eye


Additional Links
Catalogue of Photographs
Catalogue of Photographs
Jerwood Charitable Foundation

The Jerwood Charitable foundation website
(External Link)


AccessibilityTerms of use Site map
Copyright © The British Library Board