This year will see a number of events to mark the bi-centenary of the birth of Oscar Gustave Rejlander, ‘the father of art photography’.
Very little is known about Rejlander’s early life. In his obituary The Photographic News wrote:
Of the early life of Mr. Rejlander, we have but a brief record, derived from his incidental remarks in conversation.”
Even the fact that he was born in 1813 is conjecture – deduced from the age written on his death certificate.
A flamboyant, colourful, theatrical figure, Rejlander may well have actively cultivated a sense of mystery surrounding his origins.
Probably born in Sweden (again, this is not certain) as a young man, Rejlander studied painting, and later moved to Rome where he made a living making copies of Renaissance paintings.
It was perhaps as a result of his early experience as a painter that Rejlander realised how useful photography could be to artists. He himself claimed that this moment of revelation came in 1852 after he’d bought some photographic reproductions of classical sculptures and was captivated by how photography succeeded in capturing the complicated folds of drapery.
The precise date that Rejlander arrived in Britain isn’t known but during the early 1840s he was living in Lincoln, working as a portrait painter, before settling in Wolverhampton in 1846.
In 1852 Rejlander took up photography. He later claimed that he was almost entirely self-taught, his instruction being confined to a single afternoon’s tuition from Nicholaas Henneman, William Henry Fox Talbot’s former valet and assistant. However, given the complexity of the wet-plate process which Rejlander used, this claim seems somewhat unlikely.
Rejlander’s choice of photographic subject matter was clearly influenced by the works of art he’d studied as a young man. He favoured sentimental genre studies, narrative tableaux and portraits with a strong theatrical or emotional element. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was also prepared to reveal a sense of humour in his work.
Rejlander pioneered the painstaking technique of combination printing – combining several different negatives to create a single final image. In 1857 he used this technique to produce his best-known photograph, an allegorical tableau entitled The Two Ways of Life, created using over 30 separate negatives.
This work was extremely controversial at the time since it included a number of nude figures. However, Queen Victoria clearly was impressed since she bought a copy as a gift for her beloved Albert after seeing it exhibited at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition.
In 1862 Rejlander moved to London.
In 1871, impressed by the naturalness of his photographic portraits, Charles Darwin commissioned Rejlander to provide the illustrations for his book On the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
Despite being very ill with diabetes, Rejlander threw himself into the task with great enthusiasm, even posing himself for several of the studies.
In 1875, despite a long and prolific career, Rejlander died in poverty.
Following his death, 140 of Rejlander’s prints and 60 of his wet collodion glass negatives were acquired from his widow by The Royal Photographic Society. These are now cared for here in our archives.
At a ceremony held in November last year, Rejlander’s previously unmarked grave in Kensal Green cemetery had a new commemorative stone placed on it, funded by donations from Wolverhampton Photographic Society.
Rejlander was convinced that photographs could not only be a useful tool for artists but also an art form in their own right and he aspired to raise photography to the status of art.
The verdict of the Art Journal on his work would have delighted him:
“Late years have shown that more can be done than we at one time thought possible, and that results are obtainable from lens and camera, which are not merely imitations and copies from still nature, but productions of mind and thoughtful study, and which, when gazed on, raise emotions and feelings similar to those awakened at the sight of some noble sepia sketch, the handiwork of a good draughtsman. Of Mr. Rejlander’s pictures (for such we may justly call them) we have no hesitation in saying that they are full of beauty and full of mind.”
Photographs by Oscar Gustav Rejander including his Two Ways of Life and Rejlander Introduces Rejlander the Volunteer are currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston as part of their Faking It: Manipulate Photography Before Photoshop exhibition.