...in coming to a ravine called the valley of death, the sight passed all imagination: round shot and shell lay like a stream at the bottom of the hollow all the way down, you could not walk without treading upon them...
Fenton's most famous photograph is also one of the most well-known images of war. Across a desolate and featureless landscape, not a single figure can be found. The landscape is inhabited only by cannonballs–so plentiful that they first appear to be rocks–that stand in for the human casualties on the battlefield. The sense of emptiness and unease is heightened by the visual uncertainty created by the changing scale of the road and the sloping sides of the ravine.
Borrowing from the Twenty-third Psalm of the Bible, the Valley of Death was named by British soldiers who came under constant shelling there. Fenton traveled to the dangerous ravine twice, and on his second visit he made two exposures. Fenton wrote that he had intended to move in closer at the site. But danger forced him to retreat back up the road, where he created this image.
On a commissioned assignment, Fenton traveled in 1853 to the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea, where England, France, and Turkey were fighting a war against Russia. To avoid offending Victorian sensibilities, Fenton refrained from photographing the dead and wounded. His more than three hundred images of encampments, battle sites, and portraits of all miltary ranks, became the first extensive photo-documentation of any war. When exhibited in England, Fenton's photographs of the Crimean War established his reputation.