The battle for photography’s place in the fine art world is a road that is long and seemingly never ending at times, even today. In the 1800’s especially, photography struggled for a place at the table and one man, in particular, pushed the envelope: Oscar Gustave Rejlander. During the Victorian Era, photographic standards of art were mostly based on comparisons to painting. In other words, the photo had to look real, but not too real. Many photographers chose to use sub standard lenses, smudge the lenses or plates, and even introduce camera shake in order to achieve more painterly effects. Another mandate of the era for artistic candidacy was that the image had to be allegorical, or have some sort of higher or hidden meaning.
Rejlander was a painter who learned photography as a tool to make studies for his paintings. He came to prefer photography. He opened a photo studio in 1855. In one of his most famous pieces, Rejlander juxtaposed science and philosophy in a highly boundary pushing image entitled “Two Ways of Life”. The photograph took more than a month to make. First, he made sketches, then hired models, then made 30 different negatives. He masked different parts of those negatives and printed them together on two pieces of paper. He joined the papers and then rephotographed the whole work which he printed at 16 by 31 inches, a size gargantuan to what was typical for the time.
People had never seen anything like it. The large size meant that it commanded attention on the gallery wall. The image’s premise was an old sage introducing two young men to all the possibilities of the world. One man turns toward positive virtues–charity, industry, religion, etc. The other makes a break for less than positive virtues–gambling, drink, promiscuity, and so on.
“Two Ways of Life” inspired much debate. Some questioned Rejlander’s ethics by saying that true photography should not be made by “mechanical contrivances” such as his masking and splicing of negatives, joining papers and re-photographing. People also questioned the validity of the work as photography since it was showing a scene that never existed. Afterall, it was made with multiple images constructed together. They said that the work didn’t belong in photography or any other art for that matter, let alone fine art. The other major criticism of “Two Ways of Life” was the unapologetic nudity as well as depictions of impure ways of life. The Victorian era stressed the importance of adornment and chastity so many were aghast at the moral conflicts this photograph presented.
Rejlander didn’t let the lack of critical acclaim prevent him from continuing to push photographic norms. He utilized double exposure in “Hard Times” as a method to communicate a lower class family’s struggle with economic issues.
And in another well-known work, The Bachelor’s Dream, Rejlander created an unusual composition of a reclined man, sleeping, with a woman’s hoop skirt frame and small miniature human artist’s forms climbing the scaffolding of the skirt frame. The photo is so unusual that it calls for the viewer to come up with their own interpretation. Rejlander’s open nature of interpretation to this photo was one of the first times photography was shown that it could convey sophisticated, conceptual thoughts previously believed to only be the product of other “fine arts”.