Reading the Collections, Week 39: Rejlander’s ‘The two ways of life’ (c. 1857)
I must’ve been 14 or 15 when my parents brought home a piece of software that would literally change their professional lives and would become an everyday tool of my working life.
When my parents installed Adobe Photoshop 3.0 on our home PC, it evolved from the way to search the nascent internet or to use Encarta and to play the Monty Python & the Quest for the Holy Grail game. All of a sudden the PC became a tool, a medium in which to manipulate photographs and to create PC-drawn artwork. And now, of course, Photoshop has become so ubiquitous in our culture that it has become a lowercase verb.
One of the earliest examples of an image which is the result of serious ‘photoshopping’ came up for auction at Bonham’s earlier this autumn. Oscar G. Rejlander’s 1857 “The two ways of life,” or “A pictorial composition from nature,” is a large-format (over 70cm wide) photo-montage of 30 negatives which took the photography and art circles of Great Britain by storm. Rejlander, an early commercial practitioner of photographic portraiture, had a mission: to show that photography was more than just a means to reproduce what one saw in real life, and to show that photography could be considered as art.
For this Reading the Collections post, then, I wanted to practice my hand at ‘reading a photograph’, and St Andrews recently acquired a copy of this iconic image. It is well known and well documented that Rejlander used Raphael and other Renaissance artists as his inspiration for the composition of this work, which depicts two apprentices, guided by a sage figure (who looks a great deal like Rejlander himself), who are presented with the path to vice or the path to virtue. As an everyday user of Photoshop, I’m going to ‘read’ the technical cues which can be found all over this print showing how Rejlander actually pulled off this amazing feat of photomechanical artistry.
Rejlander introduced the concept of ‘layering’ a photograph in a bombastic way. The above detail is taken from the centre of the photograph, just above the sage, which depicts at least 4 layers that have been blended together. The curtain, which extends across the image, has been expertly cut (in this case by hand) to allow details from lower layer to peek through, such as the stone work from the wall. The angel figure, superimposed on top of the wall shadow, has been blended in with an almost ethereal effect, and the background archway with walls and plants beyond also looks to be a composition of two images. The background of the entire image looks to be composed of six images (left to right: curtains blended into column with ivy, cut into stone archway with foliage blended into background, plain column, and archway).
In the detail above, we’re seeing how Rejlander cut out his individual negatives, in this case the back of a woman’s head, the sage figure, and the left-hand apprentice, and layered them on top of the background. What is also quite typical of manipulation of photographs right up until the advent of Photoshop is the use of post-developing processes to highlight and sharpen images. What we see in the detail above and below is the photographer using a pencil to define the edges of his subjects, especially where the ‘blend’ of layers has been done to an effect where the detail might have been lost in processing.
The art of blending two or more negatives, however, isn’t always carried off to perfect effect in Rejlander’s work. In the above detail, we see two nudes (there’s a lot of topless Victorian ladies in this post! [see the story below about how the image had to be exhibited behind a set of drapes when it came to Scotland!] ) which have blended unsuccessfully at the arms.
Here we see two methods of layering used to different effect. In the left-hand image, take from the path of vice, the tavern scene has been cut and mounted on top of a gaol scene. The layering, however, of the left hand portion of the tavern scene has been darkened underneath, or even allowed to cause a slight shadow on the gaol scene below it, allowing the two distinct scenes to be differentiated. In the right-hand image, taken from the path of virtue, four portrait photographs have been joined andexpertly layered and scaled to make one seamless scene (the physician on top of the geographer on top of the smith on top of the, umm, broccoli seller [?])
Finally, above shows a physical join probably due to the size of the photographic plate used to make contact prints. The two sides would have been printed separately and then joined by Rejlander in the studio. The join overlaps as we see the cut of the print being fitted around the contour of the right-hand apprentice and the seated nude on the left. Also in this detail, we are seeing the use of post-processing highlighting with pencil on the columns (which, coincidentally, don’t quite match up).
Rejlander recounted that the making of “The two ways of life” took only about six weeks and, because of the size of the finished image, required two sheets of photographic paper to make a finished print. He used a complex method of measuring his subjects and figuring out scale and ratio when laying out his final negative to make this large print. As to how many prints were made by Rejlander himself:
At least five prints were produced. One was purchased by the Queen at Manchester and another was shown at the Birmingham Photographic Society’s meeting. A third was sold to the Scottish physicist, Sir David Brewster, and a fourth, sold by Rejlander was eventually presented to the Royal Photographic Society in 1925. This is believed to be the only copy still in existence. A fifth copy is believed to have been sold to a gentleman at Streatham.—Wolverhampton History & Heritage Website
The St Andrews’ copy bears a pencil inscription on its original mount, likely in Rejlander’s own hand, has a provenance: “Purchased in Streatham (London), by the vendor’s grandfather, in the 1920s.” So, it seems that St Andrews has had the good fortune to acquire a very rare work of photographic artistry. The Photographic Collections at St Andrews benefit greatly from David Brewster’s early collecting (including our complete copy of The Pencil of Nature, which was ordered by him for the Library), although his copy of Rejlander’s landmark work was not found in our collections. Rejlander’s “The two ways of life” also played an important role in Scottish photographic history, as its racy nature was the cause of the schism of the Photographic Society of Scotland and the breaking off of a group that would ultimately form the Edinburgh Photographic Society. Rejlander’s “The two ways of life” adds a wonderful example of early manipulated photos and forgeries to the collections.