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June 2019

Vol. 161 / No. 1395

Oscar Rejlander: Artist Photographer. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Reviewed by Corey Keller


Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813–75) was a prolific experimenter and adventurous advocate for photography’s rightful place among the fine arts. A painter and copyist by training, he took up photography in 1852 and from then on earned his keep as a portrait photographer. Within the art circles of Victorian Britain, his fame (or infamy, depending on the critic) derived largely from a monumental single photographic image composed from more than thirty separate negatives, entitled Two ways of life (Hope in repentance) (no.88; Fig.14). This allegory of the forked moral path faced by a young man in a rapidly industrialising society is a masterly example of Rejlander’s pioneering use of combination printing to create tableaux that marry the descriptive potency of photography with painterly themes and compositions. But discussions of Rejlander’s virtuosic technique, and this photograph in particular, have so dominated considerations of the artist’s place in the history of photography that both the range of his work (which encompasses not only manipulated photography but also studies for artists, commissioned portraiture, theatrical re-enactments, scientific illustration and social commentary) and the complexity of his engagement with the photographic medium itself have been overlooked. The exhibition under review, organised by Lori Pauli at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and currently at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, aims to change that by offering an illuminating and long overdue retrospective of his career.

The 150 works in the exhibition are grouped thematically, but due to the openness of the Getty’s high-ceilinged galleries the viewer apprehends the exhibition as a whole; only in the museum’s smaller side galleries are the groupings as effective as they were in its original hanging at Ottawa. However, not experiencing the exhibition in a predetermined sequence is not entirely detrimental to its thesis. Although it is more difficult to glean the chronology or stylistic evolution of Rejlander’s career, the hang succeeds in demonstrating that his most mature work is characterised by concerns that are already apparent in his earliest. Running through his œuvre are a jovial wit and a fascination with the depiction of labour, which must be understood as part and parcel of a self-conscious negotiation of the place of both photography and the photographer in the creation of works of art.

Rejlander took a keen pleasure in the possibilities of wordplay, and such titles as the Shakespearean At first the infant mewling and puking in its nurse’s arms [?] (1858; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; no.50) inspire not just genteel snickers but laughout- loud guffaws. A native Swedish speaker – he emigrated to Britain in 1839, the same year photography was invented – Rejlander was keenly attuned to the absurdities of his adopted tongue and his penchant for verbal punning was matched by an aptitude for visual jokes. A pun exploits the gap between a word or symbol and its multiple meanings: a parrot, for example, is a tropical bird, but ‘to parrot’ is to repeat something verbatim, perhaps without comprehending its meaning. Unpredictably outspoken parrots are a recurring trope in Victorian literature, sometimes to inject a note of humour, but equally often used as a plot device to add a point of view that could not be politely expressed by the human protagonists. Parrots appear in at least two of Rejlander’s pictures, including [Self-portrait with parrot] (no.34; Fig.15), which shows the photographer himself, apparently at work making a drawn copy of a photographic portrait, sitting in a posture of defeat before his incomplete rendition, pencil held limply in his hand. Above, a parrot peers out of its open cage, as if inspecting his master’s handiwork. Like many of Rejlander’s visual puns, this one offers a multivalent, nuanced and open-ended commentary on the relationship between photography and drawing as forms of representation and on the role of the artist. Rejlander’s seemingly light-hearted jests frequently point rather seriously to the nature of the photographic condition, reminding viewers that like language, photographic images – even those that purport to represent the world as it is – are also constructed representations, their meanings equally determined by symbolic systems.

Like Rejlander’s use of humour, his preoccupation with the working class signals concerns outside the pictorial frame. No doubt his portraits of washerwomen, domestic workers and chimney sweeps, such as Please give us a copper (no.77; Fig.16), were born of a genuine concern for the plight of the working poor in rapidly changing London. Yet the artist’s interest in labour seems to extend beyond social commentary to a broader meditation on the nature of work, including his own. Rejlander literally inserts himself into the work: sometimes singly, as in his self-portrait with a parrot, and sometimes doubled within the frame, as in O.G.R. the artist introduces O.G.R. the volunteer (c.1871; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; no.35). In this latter example, Rejlander figures himself twice in his dual roles of artist and soldier (an expert marksman, he served in the Artists’ Rifles corps; one cannot help but see the relationship between the marksman and the photographer as a pun on shooting). For Rejlander, it was the intellectual and creative labour of the artist that transformed a photograph from a mechanical record of the world into a work of art: ‘I regard art as a means of making thought visible. If I can make a thought visible in a picture [. . .] it is a work of art whether I produce it by the aid of the camera or of the pencil. It is the mind of the artist, and not the nature of the materials, which makes his production a work of art’.1 By insisting on the visibility of his labour – whether in the meticulous assembly of a combination photograph or the depiction of the artist himself – Rejlander is staking a claim for photography’s status as art. It is important to note that the question of labour is also a question of social class, as Jordan Bear observes in ‘Collectors, copyists, and collaborators’, his contribution to the engaging exhibition catalogue.2 Unlike many of the earliest practitioners of photography, Rejlander was a professional photographer who derived his (admittedly meagre) living from his work, despite regularly positioning himself as an amateur.

Although the exhibition asserts that photography’s status as an art form is so firmly secured in the contemporary moment that such extreme strategies as Rejlander’s combination printing are now entirely unnecessary, some aspects of the debates surrounding photography’s status within the art world are nonetheless tenacious. In a 2010 essay entitled ‘The unreasonable apple’, the photographer Paul Graham asserted that the photographic creativity of the street photographer – unlike that of the artist who visibly manipulates his or her work – is defined in many ways by its very invisibility and indescribability: ‘How do we articulate this uniquely photographic creative act, and express what it amounts to in terms such that the art world, highly attuned to synthetic creation – the making of something by the artist – can appreciate serious photography that engages with the world as it is?’.3 He argued that the contemporary art world is far more sympathetic to work whose manner of making can be described, in which ‘the handiwork of the artist is readily apparent: something was synthesized, staged, constructed or performed’. No doubt Rejlander would recognise this complaint.

One of the unanticipated but welcome side effects of the digital revolution in photography has been to inspire a new body of scholarship on the medium’s early days: in order to appreciate what photography has become (or, in gloomier formulations, lost), we must more clearly understand what it was. This monographic study of Rejlander must be seen as part of a much-needed re-evaluation of the properties historically ascribed to photography, offering an enlargement of the scholarship on a single artist’s varied career as well as a focused view into the Victorian embrace of photographic manipulation and the nineteenth-century struggle to define the medium’s relationship to other forms of representation.


1 O.G. Rejlander: ‘What photography can do in art’, in The Year-Book of Photography and Photographic News Almanac, London 1867, p.50.

2 Catalogue: Oscar G. Rejlander: Artist Photographer. By Lori Pauli, Jordan Bear, Karen Hellman and Phillip Prodger. 336 pp. incl. 11 col. + 245 b. & w. ills. (National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, and Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2018), $50. ISBN 978–0–300–23709–2.

3 Paul Graham Archive, http://www., accessed 9th May 2019.