National Gallery plumbs the beginnings of photographic art with Rejlander exhibition

Oscar Rejlander didn’t invent photography, nor was he the first to use it, yet it’s remarkable to walk among his work, now at the National Gallery, and see so many of the roots of what we know as photography today.

In his quest to have the world see photography as “art,” and to have artists see it as a useful creative tool, Rejlander laid the path for his reputation, his ruin and his place in art history (in that order). He was, says National Gallery director Marc Mayer in the expansive catalogue produced for the exhibition, “an artist whose creative and relentless curiosity helped to break down some of the barriers that separated photography and art.”

But, oh, at such a cost.

Rejlander was born in Sweden in 1813 and eventually moved to England. Among the first of 140 works in the exhibition are paintings, including an 1842 watercolour self-portrait, in which he “presents himself as a successful young gentleman,” the wall card says. (He was 29.)

Oscar G. Rejlander. Two Ways of Life (Hope in Repentance), 1857, printed 1925, carbon print, 41.1 x 76.9 cm. The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Acquired with the generous assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund and Art Fund. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum

His painterly background is why several of his earliest photographs so resemble paintings in their classical posing, particularly his 1857 print of a washerwoman and his 1859 print of an itinerant labourer. His 1860 photograph “three nudes” was deliberately conceived and executed to convince artists that photographs could be first sketches for paintings or drawings. He created many photographs for use as early sketches, and it was a controversial position at the time. Even today, the use of photographs as sketches for paintings can be sniffed at by those who tiresomely consider themselves as purists.

The exhibition was created by curator Lori Pauli over the better part of 10 years, and it is, incredibly, the first retrospective of  Rejlander’s work ever held, despite him being widely regarded as “the father of art photography.”

It’s a treat to walk through the various rooms of the exhibition and spot the beginnings of what is so common today. Rejlander photographed landscapes and nudes, and there’s an entire section dedicated to street photography with a distinctly Dickensian feel. For example, in a scene titled “Please Give Us A Copper, an urchin poses with a straw broom.


The harshness of street life contrasts with everyday domestic scenes that reveal Rejlander’s ripe sense of humour. In Caught, a woman peers around a curtain as a boy attempts to pilfer a case that’s off limits. Another shows two women fussing over an infant, and the scene is titled, At First The Infant Mewling and Puking In Its Nurse’s Arms.

The section on portraits includes notables of the Victorian age, including Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll, Tennyson and others.

Oscar G. Rejlander,
The First Negative, 1857, albumen silver print, 29 x 15 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

There are also selfies, and what must be the very earliest roots of the self-portrait-as-someone-else work of Cindy Sherman and others. In one, Rejlander appears as a general he admires. In another, he casts himself not as others but as two versions of himself, as artist and as soldier — in the latter pose specifically as the expert marksman he was in a “volunteer light infantry made up of painters, musicians and architects.”

Someone, please, turn that into a movie.

The dual self-portrait is an example Rejlander’s greatest single contribution to photography, the “combination photograph” — or, to use today’s parlance, a photo made of multiple exposures.

Soon after Rejlander’s interest in photography was piqued in 1852, on a trip to Rome, he began incorporating multiple negatives into one print, most famously in his 1857 epic Two Ways Of Life, or Hope in Repentance. Two versions of the highly theatrical scene, combined from more than 30 negatives, are included in the exhibition.

Though the medium was still young, already the self-appointed guardians were vehemently defending its purity, and they weren’t about to stand for Rejlander’s multiple-negative jiggery-pokery.

“Even before his death in 1875, critics were accusing him of trickery and manipulation,” Pauli writes in the catalogue. “These tactics did not adhere to . . . .what would come to be known as ‘straight’ photography.”

By the late 1860s Rejlander was frustrated by opposition to the idea of photography as art, and by artists’ rejection of photography as being useful to them. Not even the purchase of three prints of Two Ways Of Life by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert could assure his reputation, and his “career ended in poverty and disappointment,” Pauli writes. He died in 1875.

The retrospective is at the National Gallery to Feb. 3, and then travels to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Maybe someone in Hollywood will see it and make that movie.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.