The Getty Museum will open a special retrospective display of English fine art photography pioneer Oscar Rejlander in Oscar Rejlander: Artist Photographer, 12 March. The show will feature 150 works by Rejlander, ranging from his portraits, landscapes, paintings, drawings, and prints. In a time when society deemed photography to be painting's subordinate, Oscar saw the medium as fine art.
Born in Sweden, Rejlander was first a painter before a photographer. Portraiture has become a forte, and he would use wet collodion and waxed paper processes. Rejlander shot portraits of people belonging to the high society of London and were more enamored as to how he captured subtle expressions as well as the natural 'feel' in the images. Such figures were the scientist Charles Darwin, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Caroll), portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron, and poets Alfred Lord Tennyson and Henry Taylor.
Already known for his unique methodology, he also constructed an iron, wood, and glass "tunnel studio", which helped him greatly on the dramatic lighting. The model is positioned in the lighted part of the studio, and would have to look into the darker part of the room where the camera and photographer are placed – this would make the model's eye pupils expand, giving "more depth and expression". He also was one to provoke unique and exaggerated emotions out of his subjects, in pursuit of emotional portraits – the series The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).
One of the first experts in photomontage, he also explored with combination printing, in which he would expose multiple parts of negatives then print them as a single picture. It was in 1856 when he made the famous Two Ways of Life, an allegorical work in which he used montaged combination printing. The image was made up of 32 images. Thus, the nickname, the "Father of Art Photography". Museum director Tim Potts said:
“Rejlander strongly believed that ‘the mind of the artist, and not the nature of his materials, makes his productions [works] of art... Although technology has changed drastically, some of the fundamental issues that Rejlander labored with in his photographs still resonate with photographic practice today. His photographs, though made a century and a half ago, are both meticulously of their time and timeless, presaging the achievements of the photographic medium, through the digital age.”
Everyday life was also a key theme in his early work – he would stage his studio in a domestic setup, have them recreate tender and familial scenes. Oscar would bring in the streets to his studio too by finding models and props that would befit his vision. To this day, the body of work of English innovator remains understated. Contemporary artists can learn much from Rejlander's wit and humor and integrate them in a now more serious and informative digital age. Assistant curator Karen Hellman said:
“What we hope comes through in the exhibition is Rejlander’s humanity and humor, as well as his humble nature, particularly evident in the fact that he often sent his work to exhibitions under the name ‘amateur'... His explanation: ‘When I compare what I have done with what I think I ought to do, and someday hope I shall do, I think of myself as only an amateur, after all—that is to say, a beginner.’”
The exhibition will run through 9 June at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.