Oscar Gustav Rejlander – The Father of Art Photography (1813- 1875)

Oscar Gustav Rejlander, a Swede painter, was born probably in 1883 to Carl Gustaf Rejlander, a Swedish Army Officer. Oscar studied art in Rome and initially settled in England. Abandoning his original line of work as an artist and portrait painter, he turned to photography. One of the assistants of Fox Talbot inspired him.

Oscar Rejlander started working as a portraitist at Wolverhampton, in approximately 1846. Rejlander learned the skills of photography in 1850, to facilitate his painting techniques and produced many works, including the most famous “The Two Ways of Life” (1857). This work was meticulously printed from 32 glass negatives. Portraiture and genre works were a couple of key dimensions of Rejlander’s works. His “Charlotte Baker” series corroborates ‘Eroticism.’ Artist used his nude works as a model for reference. In 1853, the artist probably invented ‘Combination Printing.’

Portraiture especially was very difficult in those days, as the exposure times could be as long as 10 or 12 seconds. Rejlander assumed that photography made him a better artist and a more cautious draughtsman. His experimentation with light reduced exposure time, accentuated outline, and the textures of his work. He experimented in the rare composition of photography, wherein each print contained numerous images from different negatives. This practice conquered the innate limitations of the Wet Collodian Process. Photographic compositions were tricky to print, as the exposure of light on each negative had to be accurate. Even a small error resulted in a damaged print and therefore, the printing procedure had to begin again from the start.

Rejlander was a pioneer in this genre of photographic composition and is considered the most successful art photographer of his era. His primary composition print was called ‘Groupe Printed from Three Negatives’ and was displayed in December 1855. The same year, Oscar participated in the Paris Exhibition. Being a creative person, he styled his studio in a unique and an unusual way, bent like a cone. The camera was placed at the narrow part in shadow and the sitters at the opposite end, so that they are unaware of the camera.

Oscar’s most famous works is an allegory called “The Two Ways of Life” (1857), capturing a frame guiding two youthful men towards manhood. One of the men looks interested in gambling, wine, prostitution, and idling, while the other attracted towards figures symbolizing religion, family, industry, and good works. In the centre, appears the veiled, partially clad figure, symbolizing contrition and turning towards the good. The same year the photograph was displayed at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. The photograph though shrouded in controversy, eventually fetched fame for the artist. He was extended the membership of the Royal Photographic Society of London, which in turn earned him respect in the high society of London.

In 1862, after moving his studio to Malden Road in London, he kept polishing and excelling in his photographic techniques. The same year, he married his favorite model Mary Bull. Soon after, Oscar’s key subjects took the fancy of social issues, of which “Poor Joe” and “Homeless” are a couple of examples. The demonstration of the different human expressions of Charles Darwin’s book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872) is one of his most appreciated works. During his final years, Oscar Rejlander returned to painting, but to no gain and died in poverty. He fell ill in 1874 and died in 1875.