by Gerald Boerner
Oscar Gustave Rejlander, the Swedish artist and photographer, was a participant in the early developments of the technology. Trained in the techniques of Fox Talbot, he became skilled at the use of both his artist’s eye and photographic medium to create complex photographs composed by superimposing multiple negatives onto a single print to create a “super” images.
And he did this in an era of paper negatives and glass plates and relatively slow processes. His choice of topics for his photographs often offended the Victorian sensibilities of the era. Only the purchase of one of his images by Queen Victoria for Prince Albert quieted his detractors! GLB
“Photographers never have much incentive to show the world as it is.”
— William Leith
“Results are uncertain even among the more experienced photographers.”
— Matthew Brady
“There must be a reason why photographers are not very good at verbal communication. I think we get lazy.”
— Annie Leibovitz
“These days, most nature photographers are deeply committed to the environmental message.”
— Galen Rowell
“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.”
— Henri Cartier-Bresson
“They often ask me to shoot for them. But I say no. I think an old guy like me ought not take pages away from young photographers who need the exposure.”
— Helmut Newton
“We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there. We have been conditioned to expect… but, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs.”
— Aaron Siskind
“Some photographers take reality… and impose the domination of their own thought and spirit. Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation.”
— Ansel Adams
This posting is intended for the educational use of photographers and photography students and complies with the “educational fair use” provisions of copyright law. For readers who might wish to reuse some of these images should check out their compliance with copyright limitations that might apply to that use.
Oscar Gustave Rejlander
Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813 – 1875) was a pioneering Victorian art photographer. Rejlander was a Swede who studied painting in Italy. He settled in England in the 1840s, and inspired by one of Fox Talbot’s assistants he turned his energies to photography, round about 1855, living first in Wolverhampton, later in London.
His exact date of birth is uncertain, but was probably 1813. He was the son of Carl Gustaf Rejlander, a stonemason and Swedish Army Officer. He studied art in Rome where he saw photographs of the sights, and then initially settled in Lincoln, England. He abandoned his original profession as a painter and portrait miniaturist, apparently after seeing how well a photograph captured the fold of a sleeve. Other accounts say he was inspired by one of Fox Talbot’s assistants.
He set up as a portraitist in the industrial Midlands town of Wolverhampton, probably around 1846. Around 1850 he learned the wet-collodion and waxed-paper processes at great speed with Nicholas Henneman in London, and then changed his business to that of a photography studio. He undertook genre work and portraiture. He also created erotic work, using as models the circus girls of Mme Wharton, street children and child prostitutes – his Charlotte Baker series remains notorious.
Rejlander undertook many experiments to perfect his photography, including combination printing from around 1853, which it is possible he may have invented. He was a friend of photographer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better know by the nom de plume Lewis Carroll), who collected Rejlander’s early child work and corresponded with him on technical matters. Rejlander later created one of the best known & most revealing portraits of Dodgson.
His early work only slightly sullied his later reputation, and he participated in the Paris Exhibition of 1855. In 1857 he made his best-known allegorical work, The Two Ways of Life. This was a seamlessly montaged combination print made of thirty-two images (akin to the use of Photoshop today, but then far more difficult to achieve) in about six weeks. First exhibited at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857, the work shows two youths being offered guidance by a patriarch. Each youth looks toward a section of a stage-like tableaux vivant – one youth is shown the virtuous pleasures and the other the sinful pleasures. The image’s partial nudity was deemed ‘indecent’ by some – and those familiar with Rejlander’s more commercial work might also suspect that prostitutes had been used as cheap models. But the ‘indecency’ faded when Queen Victoria ordered a 10-guinea copy to give to Prince Albert.
Despite this royal patronage, controversy about The Two Ways of Life in strait-laced Scotland in 1858 led to a secession of a large group from the Photographic Society of Scotland, the secessionists founding the Edinburgh Photographic Society in 1861. They objected to the picture being shown with one half of it concealed by drapes. The picture was later shown at the Birmingham Photographic Society with no such furore or censorship. However the Photographic Society of Scotland later made amends and invited Rejlander to a grand dinner in his honour in 1866, held to open an exhibition that included many of his pictures.
The success of The Two Ways of Life, and membership of the Royal Photographic Society of London, gave him an entree into London respectability. He moved his studio to Malden Road, London around 1862 and further experimented with double exposure, photomontage, photographic manipulation and retouching. He became a leading expert in photographic techniques, lecturing and publishing widely, and sold portfolios of work through bookshops and art dealers. He also found subject-matter in London, photographing homeless London street children to produce popular ‘social-protest’ pictures such as "Poor Joe" and "Homeless".
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson visited Rejlander’s Malden Road studio in 1863 and was inspired to set up his own studio. Around 1863 Rejlander visited the Isle of Wight and collaborated with Julia Margaret Cameron.
Some of Rejlander’s images were purchased as drawing-aids to Victorian painters of repute, such as Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. In 1872 his photography illustrated Darwin’s classic treatise on The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
He became seriously ill from about 1874. Rejlander died in 1875 with several claims on his estate, and costly funeral expenses. The Edinburgh Photographic Society raised money for his widow on Rejlander’s death, and helped set up the Rejlander Memorial Fund.
Rejlander’s ideas and techniques were taken up by other photographers and this, to some extent, justifies labelling him as the father of art photography.
His most famous photograph is allegorical; called "The two ways of life", it depicts a sage guiding two young men towards manhood. One looks with some eagerness towards gambling, wine, prostitution and idling, whilst the other looks (with somewhat less enthusiasm!) towards figures representing religion, industry, families and good works. In the centre appears the veiled, partly clothed figure symbolising repentance and turning towards the good.
Shown in 1857 at an exhibition in Manchester, it provoked considerable controversy. Victorians were quite used to the portrayal of nakedness in paintings and sculptures, but photographs were so true to life that even though the posing was discreet, this was too much. At one stage this photograph went to Scotland to be exhibited and, so the story goes, the picture was considered so controversial that the left hand side of the picture was concealed, only the right side being shown. However, there were others who saw in this picture a valiant attempt to use photography in a domain which up to that time painters had dominated, and when Queen Victoria purchased a copy for her husband (at ten guineas), this seemed to make his photograph respectable!
Such a picture would have required a large studio and an immense amount of light. What makes this photograph such a remarkable piece of work is that the event never took place, because it is a combination print using a number of negatives – no fewer than thirty. The groups were photographed individually, the models being strolling players.
The print itself is huge (30" by 16"). A reviewer in Photographic Notes (28 April 1857) described it as:
"….magnificent….decidedly the finest photograph of its class ever pronounced…"
In 1858 Rejlander read a paper to the Photographic Society, outlining the meaning of every figure in the photograph. Henry Peach Robinson, writing about him, found that his honesty and helpfulness sometimes went awfully wrong:
"With the generous intention of being of use to photographers, and to further the cause of art he, unfortunately, described the method by which the picture had been done; the little tricks and dodges to which he had to resort; how, for want of classic architecture for his background, he had to be content with a small portico in a friend’s garden; how bits of drapery had to do duty for voluminous curtains….
(He) thereby gave the clever critics the clue they wanted, and enabled the little souls to declare that the picture was only a thing of shreds and patches. It is so much easier to call a picture a patchwork combination than to understand the inner meaning of so superb a work as this masterpiece of Rejlander’s!"
Rejlander, a man who, Robinson said, was never known to use a word that would hurt the feelings of others, was clearly crushed by this reaction:
"the time will come when a work will be judged on its merits, not by the method of production….."
The theme of this famous print most will now find quaint, but his painstaking perseverance no-one can help but admire greatly. It had taken Rejlander and his wife no less than six weeks to produce it (one could only print by daylight) and the exposures were up to two hours, each very carefully done with masks.
Incidentally, there are two versions of this picture. In the second one the Philosopher is looking towards the side that shows virtue. We are not told why this second print was made, but given the nature of the subject it may well be that someone had pointed out to the poor couple that the Philosopher himself seemed more interested in vice than on virtue, so they felt obliged to have another go at printing it!
Another popular one is a self-portrait depicting Rejlander the Artist introducing Rejlander the volunteer. The double exposure is not so successful; in the centre, on the lower part of the floor, one can see a darker tone where he has evidently attempted to shade the print.
Some of Rejlander’s photographs are not very dissimilar from Surrealist photographs of the 1920s.
Rejlander was an inventive person. His studio was unusual; shaped like a cone, the camera would be in the narrow part, the sitters at the opposite end. The camera was in shadow so that the sitters were less aware of it. It is said that he used to estimate his exposure by bringing his cat into the studio; if the cat’s eyes were like slits he would give use a fairly short exposure. If they were a little more open than usual he would give extra exposure, whilst if the pupils were totally dilated he would admit defeat, put the lens cap on the lens and go out for a walk! This interesting man must surely be the first person to use a cat as an exposure meter!
A number of his pictures were bought by Prince Albert. However, Rejlander remained in poverty. In 1859 he wrote:
"I am tired of photography-for-the-public, particularly composite photographs, for there can be no gain and there is no honour, only cavil and misrepresentation."
He eventually returned to painting, but to little gain, and died in poverty.
The RPS has quite a large Rejlander collection of about 80 prints, some original albumen, some later platinum and carbon reprints and 57 wet collodion negatives.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Oscar Gustave Rejlander…
Web Sites and Blogs:
Robert Leggat: Oscar Gustave Rejlander…
Brainy Quote: Photographers Quotes…