O.G. Rejlander at the frontier of social photography


A night on the streets of London’ (Poor Joe),v. 1860, O.G. Rejlander, épreuve albuminée d’après un négatifverre au collodion humide, 20X15cm,
Rochester, Geroge Estman House.

1. Poverty as an artistic subject

Technical progress of the industrial revolution have
allowed the large diffusion of novels like Victor Hugo or Charles
Dickens novels. Both of them have influenced artists of their time.
It is not surprising to see photographers of the second half of 19th
century point their cameras to the misery described by these two
pillars of literature.

Writers and photographers of that time live in cities
impoverished by rural exodus. It is not surprising that O.G.
Rejlander choses to capture through photography the poverty that
marks his everyday life.

Tired by his artistic work on photography using the
collage technique, he decides
to put it aside and to continue with his portraitist work  creating,
in a documentary style, portraits of kids living in the streets. The
choice of the subject isn’t surprising. In fact, according to Henry
Mayhew, a social reformist, author of Workers and poor
people in London
(1851), around
10 000 and 20 000 children having less than 15 years lived in the
streets in London in complete poverty.

A night in the streets of London, also
known as Poor Joe, is
also part of a series of portraits of children living in the street
taken by O.G. Rejlander. The child is posing, sitting on steps of
stairs. This chiaroscuro is
surprising because of the level of detail provided. The modelling of
the clothes, the child posture and the richness of the shades of grey
make this portrait a genuine painting. All the elements in this
composition are carefully chosen. The shot is perfectly controlled.
Nothing is left to chance which is actually the opposite of what we
can imagine is the life of the child in the picture.

We found in Poor Joe
the explanation of why O.G. Rejlander is considered to be the father
of artistic photography.


Urchins playing a Game. O.G. Rejlander, épreuve
albuminée d’après un négatif verre au collodion humide.

This photography is another example of O.G. Rejlander
work on poverty. These children playing with small bones almost seem
to be moving. We found here the illusion created by the scenarios of
Charles Nègre in his street photography. Here the vision of the
children is more sentimental.

2. Poverty staged

According to the art historian Stephanie Spencer,
O.G. Rejlander workshop, in Malden Road, in the north of London, is
very close by of Chalk Farm Ragged School for Boys. This institution
was in charge of give shelter and food to the children living in the
streets as well as giving them an education. Which makes de historian
say :”children in Rejlanders photographies are clean and well
fed; they are not real children of the street but rather children
taken care by a charitable institution.”

We also know that
the photograph gives clothing to the children he stages. He is known
to ask people passing by to give their clothes for his realisations.
His representation of poverty can be compared to the one depicted by
Charles Dickens in Bleak House.
O.G. Rejlander gives a very touching image of poor children and is
not scared of adding a hint of humour in his realisations. Even if
his style is very close to be a documentary, the representation
remains nearest of an artistic realisation.  

3. Children as subjects


Alice Liddell disguised as a beggar, Charles
Dodgson, épreuve albuminée d’après un négatif verre au
collodion humide.

The fact of choosing children to pose, particularly
when they don’t have parents to protect them, generates many ethical
questions. Questions related to image rights don’t exist in the
victorian England. Nevertheless, we feel uncomfortable watching these
images today.

O.G. Rejlander intention is, officially, to document.
But the staging that he choses in this pictures put’s it further away
from this. He manipulates our look and awaken in us a melancholic

O.G. Rejlander choice of photographing children has
to be put in its context. The photograph is a friend of Julia
Margaret Cameron and Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Caroll.
They both take picture of children. They pose as models and allow the
artist to describe a world of thoughtlessness. Both photographs take
pictures of children sometime very poorly clothed or having shocking
attitudes for the time. This can still bother the careful observer.

A study of Alice Liddel disguised as a beggar,
can help us understand the reasons of the controversy bout Lewis
Carroll. In this image, the photographer show us Alice Liddle, the
little girl for whom he wrote Alice in Wonderland.
The little girl is almost naked. We can see her legs up to the knee
and even one of her nipples. She is fixating the camera and her cold
gaze make us feel unease. Her hand, placed as if she were begging is
too close to her body and her fist is on her hip. According to some
art historians, this position reminds the positions of young
prostitutes in London. Lewis Carroll novel, depicted through these
photographies increases the controversy according to which he was a
pedophile. Others contradict this interpretation comparing these
photographies with those taken by Julia Margaret Cameron. She stages
her own daughters, sometimes even undressed, which is a very bold
representation for the Victorian time. The photographies taken by the
author of Alice in Wonderland
should be put into their context. Nevertheless we should note that
after this series of photographies the relationship between Charles
Dodgson and little Alice stopped brutally, without any appearing

4. Poverty and sentimentalism by O.G Rejlander


Hard Times, O.G. Rejlander, v. 1860, épreuvealbuminée d’après un négatif verre au collodion humide.

We saw it, OG. Rejlander
treats poverty as an art subject and with a certain sentimentalism.
This is mostly observed in his photography Hard Times. He
illustrates the living conditions of a poor worker. We can see a
father, with a tool on his hand, the gaze deep in his darkest
thoughts. Behind him we can image his wife and child sleeping, having
to share a unique bed. Maybe it is the anxiety that is keeping him
awake. The man is a physical worker but his clothes are clean but
simple. O.G. Rejlander gives an aesthetic but artificial
representation of poverty.


This representation is in opposition with the one of
his contemporaries. We can mainly talk about the work achieved by
Thomas John Barnes for Dr Barnardo. The collaboration between these
two men gives birth to the first wave of communication to collect
money using the medium of photography. The work of these two men,
staging children of the institution where they work will be largely
criticised. Thomas John Barnes makes photomontages. The first one
represents children living in the streets with a pitiful staging. The
second one show us the same child working in new clothes.

This work almost promotional can be distinguished
from O.G. Rejlander work on aesthetics. In the same period we can
also present the approach proposed by Alice Austen who portraits
subjects with the dignity that we must recognise in every human been. 


Alice Austen

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