REJLANDER, OSCAR GUSTAVE

b. 1817; d. 1875

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 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.

Rejlander, in fact, produced a number of pictures on other themes, and Charles Darwin used him to illustrate his book entitled "The expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals" (1872).

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.



© Robert Leggat, 1999.