January 16, 2013 5:23 pm

‘The Queen’s Target’ by Roger Fenton

This image by a pioneering Victorian photographer is both a royal souvenir and a strikingly early piece of abstract art
Roger Fenton The Queens Target 1860©Royal Collection Trust

As the founder and first secretary of the Photographic Society, established in 1853, Roger Fenton held a pivotal national position. He was instrumental in gaining the interest in photography of Queen Victoria and her technically minded Prince Consort. No doubt his long connection with the Queen was behind the making of this picture.

Yet by 1860, when “The Queen’s Target” was taken, Fenton’s career was on the wane. The pioneering campaigner on behalf of photography had been left behind by the popularity of the medium he had done so much to promote.

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His earliest known photographs are dated 1852, after meeting Gustav le Gray in Paris. Fenton’s pioneering travel photography in Russia in the early 1850s was followed by a period as a war correspondent in Crimea. The later 1850s were devoted to English landscapes and studies of cathedrals and by 1860 only the glorious still life studies were to come, with their obsessive reworking of the sheen on grapeskins. In October 1862, the Photographic Journal announced his retirement from photography and the sale of his equipment as he proposed to return to the Bar.

It is a curious phenomenon that so many great photographers had 10-year careers: Fenton is one of many. But 10 years was all it needed. A number of photographers quit the field completely in the early 1860s, unable to compete (or in Fenton’s case more likely, uninterested in competing) as the price per print was forced ever downwards.

He was unable to come to terms with either of the two great mass-market phenomena of the era, the carte de visite and the stereoscopic view. Both of those allowed pictures to be widely reproduced at a few pence each when Fenton was still selling his bigger, better crafted prints for 12 shillings. Both were wildly popular. Fenton had never minded a bit of success, but he was high-minded, too.

“The Queen’s Target” is like nothing else that he did. Made on July 7 1860, it was part of a series documenting the inaugural meeting of the UK’s National Rifle Association at Wimbledon, London. Other pictures from the series are conventional: distant views of the meeting and a group of portraits of Horatio Ross, a Scottish photographer who happened also to be a crack shot, and of his son, the winner. The Queen gave £250 towards a prize which remains to this day the premier prize in marksmanship in the UK. She fired the first shot – the accuracy apparent in Fenton’s picture was achieved by bolting her rifle to a mechanical rest (still to be seen in the NRA museum at Bisley) and arranging it to be fired by pulling a silken lanyard.

What exactly persuaded Fenton to this degree of abstraction is unknown. It may have been purely practical: the target was made of iron, and a picture would have been a convenient record of the Queen’s opening shot. The version of the image in the royal collection is retouched so as to lose almost all the surface marks; but this version – which you can see at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne – is surely the version that Fenton would have liked. It’s a Jasper Johns a century ahead of its time, and yet still a perfectly factual record of the Queen’s day at a rifle range.

This is the final part of a series on photography appearing in the FT and FT Weekend. To see more selections, go to www.ft.com/hodgson

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