Oscar Rejlander never fathered children of his own. But that certainly hasn’t stopped others from crediting him with some influential offspring. Variously called the “Father of Art Photography” and “Grandfather of Photoshop,” the 19th-century photographer’s progeny are part of our lives today, even if his name isn’t. Serious students of photography may know him, but most people draw a blank when his name is mentioned, that is if it’s mentioned at all.
The National Gallery of Canada feels history has unfairly abandoned an artist who deserves to be a household name. Now, it’s trying to correct that with Oscar G. Rejlander: Artist Photographer. The new exhibition at the gallery is being touted by organizers as the first-ever retrospective of the pioneering artist’s life and work. If you’ve ever seen a photograph that combines separate images (such as with an app that melds two faces), or has been manipulated or “Photoshopped,” then you can pretty much trace its roots back to Rejlander.
“I always find it interesting to look at an artist who hasn’t been really examined carefully before and unearth new things about (them),” says Lori Pauli, the Curator of Photographs at the National Gallery and the exhibition’s curator. “Rejlander was always trying to prove to artists that photography was a really interesting tool and it was an innovative, radical tool for art making.”
It’s kind of a sad story in a way because he’d made all these accomplishments both technically and conceptually in the way that we understand photography and yet he never saw any kind of financial success with these photographs and is kind of forgotten
Born in 1813 in Stockholm, Rejlander (rhymes with “highlander”) is thought to have moved to England about 1839. He started out as a talented painter before picking up a camera in the early 1850s, quickly establishing himself as a trailblazing photographer both technically and artistically. His talents are now on full view in a show that took three years to prepare and features 140 of his photographs, paintings, drawings and prints: 14 are from the National Gallery’s collection while the rest come from a wide assortment of lenders, 29 altogether including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The exhibition will travel to The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles next year.
Technically, Rejlander is responsible for raising combination photography to an entirely new level of quality and sophistication. Combination photography involves developing multiple negatives on the same piece of paper to create a single image much as Photoshop layers different elements to build a final picture. His most famous, impressive and controversial example of the practice is the epic Two Ways of Life, or Hope in Repentance (1857), an allegory about the choice between vice and virtue in which a bearded sage ushers two young men into the panorama of life. It’s an elaborate tableau of more than two dozen people meticulously created from at least 32 different negatives and is unlike any photograph created before (the inclusion of photographed nudity was too much for some critics). The exhibition offers a unique opportunity to see two of the four known surviving versions.
“He was really focused on the importance of the artist’s imagination,” explains Pauli. “That really was freeing to have negatives that you could combine together. You weren’t reliant on the outside world for your image making, you could invent whatever you wanted.”
Telling stories with pictures
As a result, Rejlander employed photography as a means to tell stories, to employ narrative and allegory the same way paintings had. He would stage his photos, recreating scenes of everyday life from street urchins to itinerant workers. He was also a famed portraitist, with such celebrity subjects as poet Alfred Tennyson, author Lewis Carroll and naturalist Charles Darwin.
All of this allowed Rejlander to achieve considerable notoriety in his lifetime, with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert among his patrons. But after his death in 1875, he began to fade into obscurity.
“When he died . . . there were creditors literally at his door looking for money for photographic equipment he had purchased,” says Pauli. “So it’s kind of a sad story in a way because he’d made all these accomplishments both technically and conceptually in the way that we understand photography and yet he never saw any kind of financial success with these photographs and is kind of forgotten.”
Forgotten, Pauli says, because Rejlander’s style and groundbreaking techniques were rejected by a growing orthodoxy that insisted photography be a documentary tool and one devoid of trickery.
More relevant than ever
However, such unforgiving strictures are long gone from the world of photography and Rejlander’s profile in that world may be poised for a comeback. In fact, he is arguably more relevant now than ever. It’s fitting that in a digital age that has taken photographic manipulation to unprecedented heights, creating images either deceptively real or sublimely surreal, his accomplishments are being resurrected. After a long estrangement, the “Grandfather of Photoshop” is being introduced to a new generation, his extraordinary achievements now as common and convenient as the app on your smart phone.
Oscar G. Rejlander: Artist Photographer runs at the National Gallery of Canada from Oct. 19 to Feb.3, 2019. Free with admission to the gallery.