Last time, we talked about how Rejlander pushed the envelope with the conventional view of photography as art (thus far). There was another, slightly younger, contemporary of Rejlander’s named Henry Peach Robinson to whom we also owe credit to for pushing the art of photography along as well.
Robinson, a portrait photographer in the mid-1850’s, was inspired to explore combination printing by Rejlander’s “The Two Ways of Life”. One of his most known pieces is that entitled “Fading Away”. A tableaux scene made from 5 combined negatives, that shows a young girl surrounded by her grieving family on her literal death bead. Although death and was not a topic the Victorian era shied away from in general, many balked that it should be an area photography should be involved in. Even more controversial, Robinson created the scene. The young girl was, in reality, a happy and healthy 14-year-old girl.
People’s conceptions of photography were shaken. There was (and is) a pervasive belief that photography is inherently documentary and truthful. To have someone manipulate and fabricate a scene let alone several scenes, then put them together in “post-processing”, put a huge dent in the concept that photography equals truth. Robinson’s methods (in conjunction with Rejlander’s) were a way to challenge commonly held beliefs about fine art such as painters being the only artists with “license” to create/imagine/fabricate scenes and bring them to life. They asked the question why can’t photographers create as well? Why must they only be button pushers to document what was already there?
Eventually, people came to realize that Rejlander and Robinson’s beliefs were acceptable. Photography didn’t have to be “real” to be a part of the art community. Soon, the popularity of this approach to photography grew. Robinson advocated for it more and more in articles and books. In 1869 he published the “Pictorial Effect in Photography” which became the most popular photo textbook of the 19th century. In it, he educated photographers and aspiring photographers on many of the same basics painters already knew used. Rules of composition as well as techniques for combining the negatives to achieve the images in the photographer’s mind’s eyes were all discussed. He taught photographers how to think like painters.