Oscar Rejlander’s ‘The Wayfarer’

rejlander

Oscar Rejlander was a photographer who found a way to depict a version of everyday working life, without this being too vulgar and disgusting for middle-class viewers. Originally Swedish, he had settled in Wolverhampton in around 1846. Trained as an artist, he therefore constructed scenes with settings in a studio.  Cameras were not taken onto the streets but models brought into the studio where they could be controlled and characteristics toned down with suitable clothing provided if necessary, a practice also carried out by the photographer Henry Peach Robinson. The search was for the picturesque and the passive, nothing threatening the status quo but embodying timeless virtues, and this was found in natural surroundings with rural workers, particularly those wearing a smock.   ‘The Wayfarer’, seen above, was reviewed by the Athenaeum in August 1859 in terms of art:  ‘It is admirable in light and shade, in broad daylight effect, and in exquisite detail.  It is, in fact, an Italian picture perfected with Dutch truth’.  The old labourer, going ‘to claim his parish’ and stopping for ‘a humble meal’ was critiqued in detail: ‘There is exquisite finish and work, too, about the plaited breast-plate of John Anderson’s smock frock as well as about the little quilled plaits and foldings that run like armlets round the wrists.  The veined hands are beautifully given; and, indeed, the whole thing is a triumph of photographic arrangement and manipulation’.  With his method and his artistry, Rejlander bridged the gap in photography between the contrived and the authentic.

Rejlander moved to London in the 1860s becoming a more formal portrait photographer, although he also collaborated with Charles Darwin, photographing human expressions for him.  However, this ‘sterile and manufactured’ tradition in art photography was gradually replaced by the social realism of the 1880s with photographers such as P. H. Emerson who took cameras outside.[1]  With more portable equipment such as the hand camera, and the introduction of the manufactured dry plate, photography became more accessible and cheaper leading to an explosion in amateur photography.  Forming societies, and with a constructive purpose in mind, record and survey work soon became popular, particularly documenting the rapidly disappearing rural way of life.    An address to amateur photographers in 1891 on rustic life studies noted that rustic labourers ‘on account of the peculiarities and oddities of their dress, and their careless and simple habits…many of the villages are…rather uncouth.  But still they are welcoming, clean and healthy…There is, therefore, nothing objectionable in mixing with them’.[2]  Portraits of elderly men in smock frocks were soon the result.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Gustave_Rejlander

Science Museum Group. The Wayfarer. 1990-5036/11024. Science Museum Group Collection Online. Accessed May 13, 2019. https://collection.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/co8346013.

[1] A. E. Linkman, ‘The Workshy Camera: Photography and the Labouring Classes in the Nineteenth Century’, Costume, 25, 1. 1991, pp. 37-40.

[2] Cited Linkman, ‘The Workshy Camera’, p. 50.

 

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