Friday, April 27, 2007

Recording the Empire

A number of museums and archives with material relating to nineteenth-century Britain and her empire have made extensive collections of photographs available online. Here are two well-organized and visually striking web resources.

Roger Fenton Crimean War Photographs at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The Crimean War photographs of Robert Fenton (1819-69) represent one of the earliest systematic attempts to document a war through the medium of photography. Fenton, who spent fewer than four months in the Crimea in 1855, produced 360 photographs under extremely trying conditions. He photographed the leading figures of the allied armies, documented the care and quality of camp life of the British soldiers, and recorded scenes in and around Balaclava and on the plateau before Sevastopol.

He did not photograph combat or its aftermath. Whether there was an explicit directive from the British government to refrain from photographing views that could be deemed detrimental to the government's management of the war effort, perhaps in exchange for permission to travel and photograph in the war zone, or whether there was merely an implicit understanding between the government and the photographer is not known.

Fenton photographs shown here: William H. Russell, The Times special correspondent (top); Cornet Henry John Wilkin of the 11th Hussars (bottom). Twenty-five letters written by Fenton to his family and friends while he was in the Crimea are available here.

"Images of Empire" at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol

More than 6,000 photographs and film clips representing almost 150 years of British colonial life are available online for the first time at this website maintained by the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. Visitors can explore the site by ten thematic areas (domestic life, dress and adornment, hunting, landscapes and scenery, portraits, royalty and chiefs, street scenes, trade and industry, transport, and wars and conflicts) or search by collection or keyword.

Shown here: Group portrait (1902) featuring Raja Sikander Khan of Nagar and the Mir of Hunza dressed in ceremonial attire for the Coronation Durbar at Delhi (top); portrait of Osman Digna (c. 1887), general in the Mahdist army of Sudan from 1883 until his arrest by the British in 1900 (bottom).

This is a research database containing individual records for more than 20,000 photographs drawn from forty exhibition catalogues published between 1839 and 1865. You can search by exhibition, photographer, and process.


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