Oscar Gustav Rejlander was born in Sweden in 1813. There is little known about his childhood except that his father Carl Gustaf Rejlander was a Swedish army officer who also worked as a stonemason. While studying the painting of the Old Masters in Rome, he became enamored with Raphael's famous mural, The School of Athens. The fresco's oppositional views and composition were later reflected in Mr. Rejlander's photomontages.
After relocating to Lincoln, England, he quickly changed from a portrait miniaturist and painter to photography after receiving some instruction from one of William Henry Fox Talbot's assistants. In 1846, he moved to 42 Darlington Street in Wolverhampton, where he studied the calotype process at Nicholas Henneman's London studio. Professionally, he acquired the reputation for photographic diversity, specializing in genre scenes, portrature, book illustrations, and religious allegories. He also dabbled in erotica, using young female members of Madame Wharton's theatrical troupe to pose as prostitutes and street urchins. These series of photographs caught the attention of Charles Lutwidge Dodson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and himself an accomplished amateur photographer.
Mr. Rejlander became internationally known as the inventor of combination printing, an extremely complex process by which various plates are combined to produce a single image. This technique required a high degree of skill, patience, and imagination. Drawing inspiration from the master fresco painter Raphael, Mr. Rejlander's experimentation with photomontages and combination printing produced his greatest work, The Two Ways of Life (1857). This 31-inch print was composed using more than 30 negatives and, as the photographer recalled, was quite labor intensive. He later said the picture, which was taken with an old camera fitted with a Ross lens took six weeks to complete. He believed this craftsmanship elevated his work from conventional photography to high art. Queen Victoria was so impressed with The Two Ways of Life that she spent 10 guineas on a print for her husband Prince Albert.
Like most photographers of the mid-nineteenth century, Mr. Rejlander supported himself primarily through portraiture. His social activism was reflected in Poor Joe (1861), inspired by London's growing number of homeless children. He also made portraits for celebrity clients like Lewis Carroll and poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Mr. Rejlander married Mary Bull in 1862, a young woman half his age who had posed as one of his teenage models in Wolverhampton. Naturalist Charles Darwin contacted him in 1871 with a request to produce photographs for his text entitled On the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Although the book itself was not commercially successful, Mr. Rejlander's photograph Mental Distress sold an amazing 250,000 cartes-de-visite and 60,000 prints. Suffering from either Bright's Disease or diabetes, Mr. Rejlander's failing health affected his ability to work, and he had to sell many of his prized paintings to pay off some of his debts. He died nearly penniless on January 18, 1875, and the Edinburgh Photographic Society raised funds and established the Rejlander Memorial Fund to offer financial assistance to his widow. Oscar Gustav Rejlander's techniques were clearly ahead of their time and many photographic historians regard him as the ‘father of art photography.'
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), p. 1187.
2008 Oscar Rejlander (URL: http://www.localhistory.scit.wlv.ac.uk/articles/photos/Rejlander/Rejlander.htm#menu).
2006 Photography: A Cultural History (London: Lawrence King Publishing), p. 91.
2012 Rejlander, Oskar Gustav: Die zwei Lebensarten (URL: http://www.zeno.org/Fotografien/B/Rejlander,+Oskar+Gustav%3A+Die+zwei+Lebensarten).
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