Fenton was born in Heywood, halfway between Bury and Rochdale in Lancashire, England. His father was a wealthy Lancashire cotton manufacturer and banker, and Fenton was the fourth of seven children by his first wife. (After she died, he remarried and had a further ten).
In 1838 he went up to University College London where he graduated with a BA degree (a general arts degree) in 1840. In 1841, he began to study painting with historical painter Edward Lucy . Lucy arranged for him to finish his course in Paris in the studio of Paul Delaroche between 1842-1843. In 1843 Fenton married Grace Maynard . He also began studies in Law, qualifying as a solicitor in 1847. He later he qualified as a barrister, he chooses to remain working as a solicitor.
Fenton visited the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851 and was impressed by the photography on display there. He then visited Paris to learn the waxed paper calotype process, most likely from Gustave Le Gray, its inventor. By 1852 he had photographs exhibited in England, and travelled to Kyiv, Moscow and St Petersburg making calotypes there, and photographed views and architecture around Britain. He published a call for the setting up of a photographic society.
In 1855 Fenton went to the Crimean War on assignment for a print dealer to photograph the troops, with photographic assistant Marcus Sparling , two servants and a large van of equipment. Despite high temperatures, breaking several of his ribs and suffering from cholera, he managed to make over 350 usable large format negatives. An exhibition of 312 prints was soon on show in London. Sales were not as good as expected, possibly because the war came to an end.
In 1858 Fenton made studio genre studies based on romantically imaginative ideas of Muslim life, such as a Seated Odalisque (See Picture), using friends and models who were not always convincing in their roles.
Fenton is considered the first war photographer for his work during the Crimean War, for which he used a mobile studio called a "photographic van".
- Roger Fenton: The First War Photographer
- George Eastman House Roger Fenton Series