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Fenton, Landscape with Clouds

Met curator Malcolm Daniel on humility in Roger Fenton’s [Landscape with Clouds], probably 1856.

View this work on metmuseum.org.

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Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Video transcript

Here, we’re looking at a picture from 1856 by Roger Fenton displayed under the title Clouds After Rain or Evening, we don’t know exactly but it doesn’t really matter, because I have a direct emotional response to it. It is the time when photography is not yet industrialized; it’s still cuisine rather than science. This is the only known known print of this image, part of a personal album of Fenton. The picture isn’t trimmed to a perfect rectangle. The top edge even has a kind of gentle curve, which suggests the dome of the heavens or the curvature of the earth. There are little things that look almost like comets flying through the sky; they’re just technical faults that he hasn’t retouched. And it’s this very quality of not being finished that adds an intimacy, connects me in a way to the artist. In the early days of photography, when a photographer made a landscape photograph and exposed properly for the landscape, the sky usually was overexposed. Fenton has done the opposite. It’s not about the particular place, it’s about a state of mind-- something that is very minimal and elemental and incredibly expansive. He’s let the land go dark. One can barely see the grazing sheep or the trees on the horizon. In most nineteenth-century landscapes the horizon line is more or less at the midpoint. And here he’s pushed that horizon down to the very bottom of the picture, created this dream-like sea of sky with waves of clouds going into the infinite distance. And Fenton’s photograph reminds me of how small man’s world is in the universe. It cuts us down to size a little bit. It is both humbling and inspiring.