Rejlander originally studied painting before becoming an early adopter of photography and advocate of the medium being recognised as an artform. Although not representative of his work, as the majority of his income as a photographer came from portraits, Rejlander is of note because of his ambitious use of combination printing – a technique which assembled a number of negatives together to produce one scene. Although successful at the time, for example, Queen Victoria bought a copy of ‘The Two Ways of Life’ for Prince Albert, Badger (2001: 35) considers the type of ‘high art’ photography as a footnote in the history of photography, eclipsed by other practitioners that straddled the scientific and artistic aspects of the medium more successfully. He does however make the interesting link between this early attempt at creating realistic composite photographs to the work of Gregory Crewdson.
The Juggler (1865)
This image is cited on page 18 of the course notes with the conclusion that the image is probably a composite being evidenced by the unnatural spacing of the flying balls, their sharp focus and the blasé expression of the juggler. Despite the obvious lack of realism shown in the photograph, there is evident innovation – shutter speeds fast enough to capture the moving juggling balls would have been impossible at the time and Rejlander’s decision to combine the various elements together to create the scene is ingenious. The criticism about the expression of the juggler may be a little unfair, although it is accurate that this is unusual to modern aesthetic judgement, this stilted style of portraiture would have been the norm at the time as the sitters for photographers needed to stay stull for the long exposure times necessary to make the photographs.
Hard Times (1860)
This composite shows two scenes in one – the foreground image shows a man apparently in despair with a woman and child, presumably his family, lying on a bed behind him. A second image in the background has a ghostly appearance which suggests the inner thought of the man – this is emphasised by the head of the woman being superimposed over his head. The allegory presented in the foreground image is a heavy handed representation of the ‘hard life’ indicated by the title of the image. I find the background/’minds eye’ image much more ambiguous – does this represent a lost past or a hope for the future for the man? The adoring gaze of the woman is difficult to view in tandem with the seeming hopelessness of the man and adds a sense of melancholy and loneliness.
The Two Ways of Life (1857)
This image – an ambitious combination print of over thirty negatives which measures 79 x 41 cm – is Rejlander’s most famous and celebrated work. It is an example of tableau vivant, literally ‘living picture’, a popular style of nineteenth century photography inspired by history painting and often allegorical in nature. (Rejlander based The Two Ways of Life on Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’.) The subject of the picture is broadly moralising – the central sage guides two young men towards manhood with one choosing morality and the other debauchery. (Badger (2001: 32) wryly observes that the ‘dissipation’ side seem to having much more fun) It is easy to criticise the artificial look and overblown poses of the sitters in The Two Ways of Life, to do so however demeans the incredibly difficult technical challenges Rejlander overcame by producing this image – the previsualisation alone is impressive.
Badger, G. (2010) The pleasure of good photographs. New York: Aperture
Harding, C. (2013) Introducing Oscar Gustave Rejlander, the father of art photography. Science and Media Museum Blog. Available at: https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/oscar-gustav-rejlander-pioneered-combination-printing/ [accessed 3rd February 2019]
Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press.
Herschdorfer, N. (2015) The Thames & Hudson dictionary of photography. London: Thames & Hudson.
Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.