Missing Persons 2: Oscar Gustave Rejlander

Rejlander, (1813-75), the son of an officer in the Swedish Army, had studied art in Rome and Paris before coming to England and trying to make a living as a painter. Once he saw a photograph, he realised tha this was the future, and in 1846 he opened a photographic studio in Wolverhampton.

As well as portraiture, his early work included a number of child portraits, some clearly erotic. He later married one of his child models, over 20 years his junior, who he had photographed since she was 14. Lewis Carroll was a collector of this early work and Rejlander, who became a leading expert, helped both him and Julia Margaret Cameron to set up as photographers. Rejlander’s later images of children living on the London streets in the 1860s attracted public attention to their condition.

Rejlander’s major contribution to photography was through his use of multiple exposures and combination printing. While other photographers may previously have used separate sky exposures largely to combat the lack of color sensitivity in all early photographic materials (being sensitive to blue light only, blue skies were over-exposed and lacking in tone if the exposure was made for the rest of the scene), he realised the potential of such methods for artistic purposes.

The best-known picture by Rejlander is his ‘The Two Ways of Life’, said to be put together from around 40 different exposures, painstakingly printed to give a virtually seamless image. It aimed to illustrate the choice between good and evil facing a young man at the start of life, a subject that gave considerable licence for posing models in various states of undress – so much so that when shown in Scotland, one half of the image was covered by a curtain. Read more about it.

Rather than include the image here, take a look at it on the George Eastman House website, where as well as this image you can go to the ‘thumbnails’ link and see their full collection of almost 70 images by Rejlander.

It would be a tricky feat to photograph such a scene today as a single exposure, needing a large studio with impressive resources of artificial lighting. In 1857 it was totally impossible. Using multiple exposures also helped in the tricky problem of finding models, with many playing different roles in the roughly 39 plate negatives he used.

At the time the image was highly controversial. Fortunately for Rejlander, Queen Victoria saw it and was amused, paying 10 guineas for a copy, which she gave to Albert, and he hung it on the wall of his study. With such royal approval, his reputation was made.

There was also a question of scale. At the time, all photographic printing processes were contact processes, producing images exactly the same size as the plate exposed in the camera. Most photos were small – ‘full plate’ size was 8.5×6.5 inches, and many cameras were half or quarter plate. By using a number of plates, Rejlander could make a larger print. The ‘Two Ways’ was 31×16 inches, bringing photography into the same order of scale as easel paintings.

Without doubt, photographs such as these had an influence on painting, and the work of pre-Raphaelites such as Millais often look peculiarly like these combination photographs. Photographs by Rejlander and others were indeed often used as source material, and combined together by painters to give similar results to those he obtained in the darkroom.

But his influence on other photographers was much stronger and more direct. Rejlander was a key figure in British photography in the nineteenth century, a pioneer in a number of respects, and has with considerable justification been called “The Father of Art Photography.”

Peter Marshall

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