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LOS ANGELES — Fifteen years after Oscar Rejlander’s death in 1875, fellow British photographer Peter Henry Emerson mockingly credited Rejlander with developing the “wrong-headed method” of combination printing. He called for Rejlander’s “manipulative and overly theatrical” process — which involved printing from numerous negatives to create one photograph — to be abandoned. The exhibition Oscar Rejlander: Artist Photographer, which recently traveled to the Getty Center from the National Gallery of Canada, serves to rectify the century of oversight initiated by critics like Emerson. Assembling over 140 works, it covers each phase of Rejlander’s career, from portraitist, to combination printer, to scientific illustrator.
This unprecedented retrospective positions Rejlander as a showman whose romantic and professional partnership with pantomime actress Mary Bull yielded several thriving commercial studios. After emigrating from Sweden to England in 1839 and taking up photography in 1852, he became one of the first to recognize photography’s potential as a “handmaid of art” — exemplified by early photographs like “The Infant Photography Giving the Painter an Additional Brush.” This tiny print served to demonstrate how photography could preserve an allegorical scene for a painter’s extended study. It also functioned as a self-portrait and hinted at Rejlander’s hidden ambitions: reflected in the convex mirror, he presents himself as a modern-day Jan van Eyck.
The exhibition meticulously highlights Rejlander’s many innovations, including the introduction of narrative into photographs. In “The First Negative,” he restages Pliny’s account of the origins of painting, boldly suggesting that the act of tracing a shadow is more akin to creating a photographic negative than a painting. To be sure, Rejlander’s underlying motive involved proving the artistry of his newfound profession. Another novelty involved using combination printing to visualize sitters’ private thoughts within the photographic frame. One spectacular example shows Rejlander posing as a wounded Garibaldi, encouraged in his quest to unite Italy by a mental vision of Rome that appears double-printed in the clouds overhead.
Rejlander’s ambition to elevate photography to the narrative complexity and epic scale of painting reached its apex in 1857, with “Two Ways of Life.” This photograph was created by printing figures from 30 negatives to create a scene that never existed in reality. The complex tableau — shown in two variations within the exhibition — depicts a philosopher guiding a youth as he decides between piousness and depravity. The gallery surrounding Rejlander’s magnum opus illustrates the binary of sacred and profane, with nude figure studies appearing to the right, and religious characters shown to the left. Rejlander modeled “Two Ways of Life” after Raphael’s “The School of Athens,” and considered his own work an artistic masterpiece. Unfortunately, critics did not agree: “Works of high art are not to be executed by a mechanical contrivance,” one rebuked. Others had concerns about the “flesh-and-blood truthfulness” of his photographic nudity. (Despite explanatory labels, contemporary viewers may have trouble understanding just what was so distasteful — either morally or technically — about the photograph.)
Although Rejlander eschewed combination printing following this scandal, other sections of the exhibition make clear that he continued to experiment. He was perhaps the first to market photographic nude studies to artists, and he even used them to test the anatomical accuracy of the Old Masters. His photograph “Ariadne” was created, in part, to expose the unnatural pose and elongated feminine proportions in Titian’s “Venus and Adonis.” Many of Rejlander’s contemporaries came to rely on these nude studies, and the exhibition contains at least three originally owned by the painter Henri Fantin-Latour.
While Rejlander’s photographs may occasionally appear overly sentimental or moralizing to contemporary viewers, they contain traces of a radical methodology. Not content to accept the limits of the medium, Rejlander continually pushed its technical boundaries to suffuse photography with an undeniable artistry. Even after controversy, he maintained a strikingly conceptual approach, writing, “It is the mind of the artist, and not the nature of his materials which makes his production a work of art.” One comes away from the exhibition feeling somewhat incredulous that Rejlander has not achieved the same recognition as his apprentice, Julia Margaret Cameron, or fellow combination printer, Gustave Le Gray. Our present digital age may represent the ideal moment, then, to revisit the work of this pioneer (now known as the “Grandfather of Photoshop”), whose so-called “mechanical contrivances” were met with considerable skepticism during their own time.
Oscar Rejlander: Artist Photographer continues at the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Dr, Los Angeles) through June 9.