Born in 1819, the grandson of a wealthy industrialist, Roger Fenton set aside his law studies in the early 1840s to become a painter. After studying with Michel-Martin Drölling in Paris, he returned to London and worked with Charles Lucy, a member of the Royal Academy. By 1852, however, he had made his first photographs and become an important force in English photography.
In the first few years of his career he helped to found the Photographic Society (which later became the Royal Photographic Society) and made landscape and architectural views that evidenced such great technical ability and aesthetic refinement that his work came to the attention of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Commissioned by Thomas Agnew and with letters of introduction from Prince Albert, Fenton traveled to Balaclava (in present-day southern Ukraine) to document the Crimean War. Because his project was a commercial venture, one designed to produce a portfolio of photographs of heroes of the war, his photographs generally present a positive view of the campaign. He photographed the generals who led the armies, such as General Bosquet (1855), as well as the picturesque and exotic individuals who populated the region, as in Group of Croat Chiefs (1855). But he also photographed the soldiers who bore the brunt of the fighting, and their ravaged faces demonstrate the war's true toll.
On his return to England, Fenton made ambitious studies of the English countryside, its cathedrals, country houses, and landscape. Traveling throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, he photographed historic sites such as Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Isle, as well as numerous cathedrals, such as Ely, Salisbury, and Lichfield, and country houses such as Harewood House. While some of Fenton's photographs are distinguished by their evocative depictions of light, atmosphere, and place, others demonstrate his deep appreciation of the solidity, permanence, and integrity of English architecture. His work also included portraits of the royal family, a series of still lifes, and studies of figures in Oriental costume, such as Reclining Odalisque (1858) and Pasha and Bayadere (1858).
As his career progressed, Fenton pushed himself to tackle ever greater challenges, for example, striving to photograph clouds and the landscape using only one negative or interiors of darkly-lit cathedrals, difficult technical problems at the time. Some of his last compositions, such as The Queen's Target, No. 56 (1860) and The Long Walk, Windsor (1860), are radically simplified and daringly bold.
For reasons still unknown, Fenton sold all of his equipment and negatives at an auction in November 1862 and resigned from the Royal Photographic Society. He died seven years later at the age of 50.