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Oscar Gustave Rejlander

Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813–75) is recognised as the farther of art photography; a genre that sees photographic style heavily influenced by painters and was predominant in the early years of photography as it tried to establish itself as art by mimicking art. Harding tells us that ‘He [Rejlander] favoured sentimental genre studies, narrative tableaux and portraits with a strong theatrical or emotional element’. This style was soon to be considered outdated, as straight photography took over.

Perhaps of more interest to contemporary photography is the fact that Rejlander pioneered techniques to combine negatives into a single image using combination printing. His most famous work, The Two Ways of Life, used over 30 separate negatives and took six weeks to produce (Becker). The simpler image below show the photographer introducing himself to himself.

Source nationalmediamuseum.org, by Oscar Gustave Rejlander
Source nationalmediamuseum.org, by Oscar Gustave Rejlander

The MFAH put on an exhibition, Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop, in which Rejlander’s work features. The notes to the exhibition explain:

Digitally altered photographs may be commonplace today, but they are nothing new. The ability to modify camera images is as old as photography itself—only the methods have changed. Tracing the practice from the 1840s through the 1980s, Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop shows that photography has always been a medium of fabricated truths and artful lies.

There is a book based on the exhibition, called Faking It. I’ve ordered a second-hand copy of this and look forward to exploring the pre-Photoshop works!

Contemporary Art photography has embraced the use of digital manipulation and stagings of scenes that are as significant a part of the process of image-making as the photography itself. Becker explains:

Fast-forward a century, however, and we’re back to debating what level of artifice and manipulation is acceptable in a photograph, and Rejlander’s work starts to seem, if a little less than ageless, intriguingly prescient.

Interesting times indeed. Perhaps straight photography’s grip is loosening as we are inundated with images from camera phones – photographs of the banal are everywhere, even if good ones are not.


Becker D (2013). Petapixel [website]. Oscar Gustav Rejlander (1813-1875): The “Father of Art Photography”. Available from: http://petapixel.com/2013/07/01/oscar-gustav-rejlander-1813-1875-the-father-of-art-photography/ [accessed 26.10.15]

C Harding (2013). National Media Museum [blog]. Introducing Oscar Gustave Rejlander – the father of art photography. Available from: http://blog.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/2013/07/01/oscar-gustav-rejlander-pioneered-combination-printing/ [accessed 26.10.15]

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) [website] . Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. Available from: http://www.mfah.org/exhibitions/past/faking-it-manipulated-photography-photoshop/ [accessed 26.10.15]

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