Often called “the father of art photography” and a “photographer’s photographer,” Oscar Rejlander is possibly the most innovative nineteenth century photographer you’ve never heard of. A retrospective at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Oscar Rejlander: Artist Photographer sets out to change that, celebrating his early contributions to photography. (March 12 – June 9, 2019).
First seen at the Canadian Photography Institute of the National Gallery of Canada, the sweeping exhibition is the culmination of a decade of research by curator of photographs Lori Pauli. With Karen Hellman, Getty assistant curator of photographs, Pauli has assembled a wide ranging collection of 150 works – landscapes, portraits, allegories, and commentaries on Victorian society.
Organized roughly chronologically, the exhibition opens with a selection of Rejlander’s early paintings, drawings and prints produced after his move from Sweden to England. In 1852, a trip to Rome inspired Rejlander to switch from painting to photography, which he saw as a useful substitute for live models. One of the first to provide artists with photographic references, Rejlander created close-ups of hands and feet, along with images of drapery and facial expressions. George Frederic Watts, Henri Fantin-Latour, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema were among the artists who owned Rejlander’s photographs.
Rejlander was largely self-taught; his formal photography instruction was limited to a few lessons with William Henry Fox Talbot’s former assistant. By the early 1860s, Rejlander relocated to London where he befriended a circle of literary and artistic notables including Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron, both of whom he mentored in photography.
Rejlander’s bread and butter was portraiture, and there are wonderful examples on display like Charles Darwin and the poets Alfred Lord Tennyson and Henry Taylor. Rejlander also had a life-long interest in in depicting the working class, especially children. In the controlled environment of his studio, he reenacted street scenes and staged tender domestic images using models and props.
A unifying thread throughout the works is theatricality. One of the most telling images is Rejlander’s self-portrait as Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero who fought for Italian unification. Garibaldi’s visit to London in 1864 inspired Rejlander to pose as the popular general. According to Pauli and Hellman, Rejlander seems to have identified his own effort to unify photography and art with Garibaldi’s effort to unify Italy.
To elevate the status of photography, Rejlander created many of his photographs after paintings, frequently photographing models posed as a Madonna or a specific Christian figure like John the Baptist. To produce painterly images, he also began experimenting with combination printing – exposing parts of multiple negatives separately and then printing them to form a single picture.
“What he was trying to show was that photographers could use photographs the way a painter used a sketch,” says Pauli. “You could actually make a photograph from invention. It didn’t have to be from real life. It was his way of showing artists another way of working with this new tool called photography.”
The culmination of Rejlander’s experimentation with combination printing is his 1857 masterpiece, Two Ways of Life, a moralizing tableau produced using 32 wet collodion on glass negatives. Two of the nine known versions of the work are on display. Two youths guided by a sage face a choice between vice and virtue, represented by multiple figures, with a figure of hope in the center foreground. In the reduced version, Rejlander appears as the sage.
Pauli believes that the composition, which evokes Raphael’s School of Athens, was influenced by Prince Albert, a patron of Rejlander and ardent admirer of Raphael. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria acquired three copies of the work for their residences Balmoral, Osborne, and Windsor Castle. Despite the support of the royal family, the epic work’s female nudity proved controversial in Victorian England. Rejlander would take one of the last known photographs of Albert.
In 1871, Charles Darwin visited Rejlander’s Victoria Street studio and asked him to contribute a selection of photos to his upcoming book. Among Rejlander’s eighteen images for The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals are self-portraits illustrating indignation and helplessness, and an unforgettable photo of a crying baby.
When Rejlander died in poverty in 1875 at age 61, James Ross, member of the Edinburgh Photographic Society wrote this tribute: “I feel confident that all present will agree with me when I say that the lamented death of O Rejlander has left a vacant space in the ranks of photography which few, if any, are able to fill; indeed I have never met any who did not willingly bear testimony to the artistic excellence of his pictures. We can all tell a “Rejlander” at a glance – not from any particular mode of lighting or style of background, but from the impress on the artist’s own genius, which is more or less stamped upon them all…”
The Getty is pairing the Rejlander retrospective with Encore: Reenactment in Contemporary Photography featuring modern approaches to exploring the past. Eileen Cowin, Christina Fernandez, Samuel Fosso, Yasumasa Morimura, Yinka Shonibare MBE, Gillian Wearing, and Qiu Zhijie are the featured artists.