Roger Fenton’s photograph of the Crimean ‘valley of death’ (the ravine that ran between the British and Russian camps during the Crimean war) represents a key moment within the reception history of Psalm 23. It is both a reinterpretation of the Psalm for the age of modern warfare, and testament to the Psalm’s ubiquity within British culture. The British familiarity with the Psalm was largely due to the multiple woodcut versions of Pilgrim’s Progress that had flooded the market since the late seventeenth century and which all featured an image of Christian in the ‘valley of the shadow of death’.
Fenton, one of the first war photographers, had been commissioned to take photos of the Crimean War. Because Victorian sensibilities could not tolerate graphic photographs, Fenton focused on the ‘landscape of aftermath’ (Grant 2005). Thus this image, exhibited by Fenton on his return from the Crimea in 1855, depicts the aftermath of a battle in the area referred to by the troops as ‘the valley of death’ (see Psalm 23:4), a location that was also immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854).
Fenton’s landscape is devoid of human, animal, or indeed any living presence. Instead, the barren hills and the snaking road are covered in cannonballs and other debris, a grim reminder of the human loss that the landscape repeatedly bore witness to throughout the war. The connection of the landscape in this photograph with Psalm 23 by the authors of the 1855 exhibition catalogue (who appended the title to the image) brings new meaning to the notion of the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ evoked in 23:4. Here in the photograph, the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ from which the Lord is said to provide protection is a literal valley scattered with the debris of modern warfare, in which many experienced great ‘darkness’. Whether Fenton’s photograph suggests a continuation of that divine protection, is entirely ambiguous.
Grant, Simon 2005: ‘A Terrible Beauty’, Tate Etc, 5, available at https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-5-autumn-2005/terrible-beauty
23The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
2he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
3he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff,
they comfort me.
5Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord