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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Oscar Gustave Rejlander

Names:
Other: Gustav Rejlander 
Other: O.G. Rejlander 
Other: Oscar Gustaf Rejlander 
Other: Oscar Gustav Rejlander 
Dates:  1813 - 1875, 18 January
Born:  Sweden
Active:  England
 
  
Originally a painter, Rejlander learned photography as an aid to painting and produced many painterly studies, including the most famous The Two Ways of Life, painstakingly printed from 32 glass negatives. His nude studies were used by artists for copy purposes rather than go to the extra expense of paying a model to pose. He also took the photographs used to demonstrate different human expressions for Charles Darwin‘s book "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals".
 
[Courtesy of Pam Roberts]
J.B. Forster, 22 October 1875, "On Art and Photography and the Late O.G. Rejlander, The British Journal of Photography, vol. 22, no. 807, pp. 513-514
 
ON ART IN PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE LATE O. G. REJLANDER.
 
[A communication to the Manchester Photographic Society.] In the year 1865, soon after I commenced taking photographs, I met Mr. O. G. Rejlander, who was on a visit to Bowdon, and was introduced to him. I offered him the use of my gallery and dark room, and a photograph I have brought with me will show you how he used the former. In that corner, which I covered for him in the way you see, he took as good pictures as any I have seen of his. He remained at Bowdon about a fortnight, and I had thus the coveted opportunity of becoming acquainted with him and of seeing by what means he obtained the pictures which at that time had made his name well known to lovers of photographic art.
 
No doubt some of those present will recollect some of his pictures at the Art Treasures' Exhibition. One of them—a large composition picture, called The Two Way of Life—I present to your notice this evening. It was, I think, taken at the suggestion of the late Prince Consort, who, at that time and until his decease, maintained friendly relations with Mr. Rejlander. The last portrait taken of the Prince was by Mr. Rejlander, prior to the development of the fever which ended his life. He left on Mr. Rejlander's mind a very pleasant recollection. He always spoke of the Prince Consort with respect, and told many anecdotes of his photographic intercourse with him illustrative of his genuine princely character. Mr. Rejlander was an artist before he became a photographer, and was both a painter and modeller. He had studied anatomy carefully, and was master of all it can tell an artist of human form and action. He had also travelled in Spain and Italy, and had carefully educated himself from attentive study of the great masters, whose works are the classics of European art.
 
Not many years ago a very delicately-painted child's head by Mr. Rejlander enjoyed a good place in one of the Royal Academy exhibitions, and bore comparison favourably with all that was best about it. A well-known artist assured me that Mr. Rejlander could never have been an artist or he would never have been a photographer; but artists as able to whom I have shown his pictures have recognised at once the true artist's work. How a man like Mr. Rejlander came to be a photographer I cannot say ; for it was not only that he could paint well, that his eye felt intensely the influence of form and colour, Dut there were more than these qualifications for the artist in his nature. He had a keen sympathy with human life, and a genuine love of nature. No mood of either escaped his observation. He had himself felt the vicissitudes and the conflicts of life. He had tasted both its joys and its sorrows ; but, though he had difficulty in earning his livelihood, yet he passed through life with his spirit unsoured, and nothing could destroy to the last the childlike simplicity of his spirit. He was young, even when disease had reduced him to a skeleton and life was only suffering to the body. Wherever he was known he was loved, and whatever he took in hand he did well. His volunteer comrades raised him to authority in the ranks, and he won distinction amongst them as a marksman. His funeral was conducted with military honours. The true artist, whether of the brush or pen, belongs to no sect or clique, and Mr. Rejlander belonged to none; you could not have enticed him into any wrangle or gossip, and his name never figured in any party strife. He felt those touches of nature which make " the whole world kin," because we are all human alike. He had the capacity and the heart to sympathise with all, and this, united to the power of making it vocal in pictures, or poetry, or prose, is one of the marks of genius.
 
Such and much more was the man I have undertaken to speak about tonight. I am only sorry I am not more competent to do justice to his memory; for here 1 must say that I am not an art-critic so much as one who has always felt the true and beautiful without analysis. I have the misfortune to be colour blind, to wander in hopeless helplessness amongst reds and greens; yet, for all this, a picture which is not true in colour offends my eye without my being able to say why it does so. I can more readily find out wherein drawing offends; but criticism, like everything else, is an acquirement only attained by study and analysis. I know I shall be sadly at fault in pointing out the excellences or defects of the pictures I have brought here tonight. They are not my selection, and I do not think they do full justice to Mr. Rejlander, as there are many I know of which are not here; but I have had to take what have been sent to me.
 
The first picture I will allude to is Young Photography Handing the Artist a Brush. Any photographer will at once wonder at the production of such a picture by means of the camera. No part of it is neglected. Hands, feet, form—every portion is studied with the greatest care and delicacy of feeling. It also expresses an idea of Mr. Rejlander's, for he felt how defective a photograph must be as a work of art when compared with the work of a painter or sculptor.
 
The hand of the artist holds many brushes; young Photography —only a child in fact—gives him one more. This idea is conveyed in a picture well calculated to show that as Photography grows the brush may be used with power. Paganini could play upon one string, but no man knew better than he the value of four; and so with any man who has tried to make a picture by means of the camera alone. If he have any sense of what a picture should be he will feel, just as he is master of his one brush, the defects of his means for attaining the highest results. A great picture cannot be produced by the camera alone. Mr. Rejlander knew this very well, and with him the camera was but one brush, and a very inadequate one, for expressing what he wished to convey. But still, though it is not everything, photography has done good service to art, and it has effected much in the way of artistic education.
 
Such a power as the camera was destined from the first to be used, and its productions to become familiar to us all. That they should be good, therefore, was always of the first importance; and if all artistic feeling had been withdrawn from it, and all artists had despised it, the world would have been poorer than it is. It has made us all familiar with countries and with life we could not otherwise have known so well as we do. The lineaments of great men are known to us all as the faces of friends, and its truthful delineations of the features of those who are dear to us and of many whom we shall never see again have made the discovery of photography one of the great blessings of modern times. No doubt it was in some respects a pity that a genius like Rejlander should have devoted himself to photography almost exclusively; but tho new art needed such devotion, and it would be ungenerous not to recognise the service rendered to it by the man whose love of art induced him to dedicate his life, not to making money by it, but to showing how it could be raised to a worthy place, made to awaken sympathy with beauty or with suffering, and to serve as an educator of national taste.
 
Mr. Rejlander took a portrait of me, and coloured it on the albumenised surface of the paper. I have no other specimen of his work in colour to show, but have brought this, as it gives some notion of his work as a painter. Mr. Rejlander was, I believe, the first to produce in a photograph those effects of light which are now so common in what are called "Rembrandt" photographs, some of which are so devoid of natural beauty and are mere tricks of lighting or retouching. He never "rode a hobby to death," and in all his pictures where this effect has been produced you will notice that he is careful "not to o'erstep the modesty of nature." I have seen a great many of Mr. Rejlander's photographs, but I never, save in one instance, saw a picture repeated. However successful be might be, he seemed to possess such endless fertility of resource that he did not feel the need of repeating it again. He had no repertoire; nature afforded him variety. This was the result of an eye that saw beauty everywhere and in all manner of places. This quality in Rejlander was another mark of his genius.
 
In painting or in sculpture the artist can produce a perfect result. Sculptors and painters present us with forms more perfect and beautiful than any which exist in nature. Every part of a figure can be made perfect by study and care; but this is not so with photography, which can only be made to yield the best of that which is. A photograph, therefore, must be criticised under different canons to those by which we judge of a painting. It is seldom, if ever, that a photograph can be perfect, and the more the parts it has the less is it possible that it should be so. It is more likely to be perfect just in proportion to the simple character of the subject. A face may be beautiful, but is seldom perfect; but an eye, a forehead, a nose, or an ear alone may often be faultless in form, and so throughout the figure. When we come, however, to grouping more figures than one or two, or deal with the nude form in photography, the chances of failure are very much increased. In The Two Ways of Life Mr. Rejlander attempted far too much, and as a picture it is full of the gravest defects. It is not within the province of photography to realise such a conception.
 
Still in most of Mr. Rejlanders pictures it is remarkable how many perfect parts there are in each. Sometimes he would keep a photograph in almost all respects bad for some one excellence. A photographer can hide defects by careful posing, and of one face make many different pictures. Note The Sweep's Wife and a large sleeping head. Both are from the same model, and the tall form in one called Hope is also from the same. Observe not only the whole picture, but also the parts, for Mr. Rejlander saw all. You will generally be able to discover what is good in something that, as a whole, does not please. Many photographs please as a whole, but will not bear analysis—more especially photographs of figures. But what beautifully drawn hands and feet yon may meet with constantly in Mr. Rejlander's photographs! Mr. Rejlander was full of humour. Mother Goose—Remarkable! I Have Lost My Pen, and Now My Spectacles are Gone .'—She's Looking at Me, the Dear Creature! are perfect in their way. The last is a wonderful picture, as is also The Winking Virgin, &c. In his pictures of London street boys we have both humour and pathos combined. In them the photographer claims kindly sympathy for the victims of misfortune and neglect. Notice A Street Arab. Why photograph those features and rags? Not certainly because they are beautiful Adding Insuit to Injury, and Jim! Is it a Good Un? are full of life. The Song Without a Shirt and Homeless are inexpressibly sad. All these pictures appeal to us to pity and help, and not to pass by on the other side. I do not know of anything in photography that approaches so nearly to what we call a picture as some of these photographs. I know of cleaner and sharper photographs, and more momentarily striking, but of none which will bear thinking of so well from many points of view.
 
To produce pictures by means of photography is a slow process. A slow process means expenditure of time, and in England time is money. Mr. Bejlander knew how to take a sharp and clean photograph as well as anyone; and I have heard him say that he knew what would pay best, but that he could not do it, as he felt it would be degradation and a dereliction of duty to pander to what he thought to be untrue. So he preferred being poor, if that must be the penalty for being true to art. He, therefore, did not try to turn out the greatest number of pictures so as to get in return the most money, but would study his subjects with care, and work at them for hours, in order to produce the best he could. His plates would get dry and spoiled just as what he wanted was found, and then he dare not miss seizing the fleeting form on anything he had by him; hence defective negatives only too often from a purely photographic point of view.
 
Some may think that in all this Mr. Rejlander was Quixotish; but we may very safely say that had he not been so, though his pocket would have been enriched, it would have been worse for art and for us. Men who take Mr. Rejlander's view of duty in life are not plentiful, but they are the great ones of the earth, however lowly may be the vocation in which they work.
 
A long and painful illness confined Mr. Rejlander to his room almost entirely for many months before he died. He literally starved to death. He could not earn money, and the expenses of his illness were such that he wrote me saying bow slowly he was dying and how expensive it was to die. Considering this, Mr. Rejlander did not die owing much—not as much as he must have lost during this distressing period. When he died his widow was left unprovided for, and a fund has been started by some of his friends in London in order to assist her to begin and work for herself. My duty is done now that I have told you what I know to have been true of a brother in our art—of one whose genius and excellence shed some lustre on the profession. If out of love for what was worthy and great, and gratitude for a well-spent life, any of you incline to send something to the fund for helping Mrs. Rejlander you will do that which would have pleased him most, and what he would bless you for could he know of and acknowledge his gratitude for your approval.
P.H. Emerson,"Our English Letter - O. J. Rejlander", The American Amateur Photographer, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 72-75
This letter does not pretend to be a critical history of the life and works of the late O. J. Rejlander, but a critique of his works now on exhibition at the London Camera Club. Your readers cannot fail to be interested in hearing something of one of the pioneers of photography, whose photographs are now collected, I believe, for the first time. The exhibition is therefore a most interesting one. I say I do not pretend to write a biographical critique of the man, because most of the materials are not at hand. For one thing we should require for the purpose a complete collection of his paintings, and if none now exist tant pis for Rejlander, for that would be conclusive proof that he had not much artistic ability. We should have to trace the reasons why he gave up oil-painting for a less perfect technique; for this exchange must always arouse a suspicion of failure in the first method in the mind of the inquiring critic. Was it incapacity that led him to the adoption of photography? This is at any rate the reason that some lesser lights have entered photography, and, captious as it may sound, I can never regard such renegades with the same feelings as those who felt from the first that photography was their natural technique. The very best work has been done by the latter class of men and such will always be the case, for failures in one branch of art are commonly failures in other branches. Mrs. Cameron towers a head and shoulders above Rejlander, and she was no failure at painting. The reasons for Rejlander's exchange would be largely shown by the quality of the paintings, etc., that he left behind him. We should, too, have to arrive at a just estimate of the state of art at the time of his appearance on the stage; to an estimate of the influence he had on our art and upon his contemporaries and they upon him; and lastly we should have to get a true knowledge of his personal character, of his dealings with opponents, of his aims, and above all of his self-sacrifice. It would be an interesting study, but personally I do not think the subject worthy of this study, for I may as well say at once that I was greatly disappointed with the show.
 
One of the first things that strikes the critic after wading through the dull wastes of the four hundred prints, is that Rejlander was a great imitator, perhaps an avowed imitator like some disciples and lesser lights. He has actually dared to dress and pose figures after certain well-known pictures, and he has done it so well that one involuntarily exclaims, "Ah! a Carlo Dolci," "a Raphael," "a Gerard Dow," "a Fra Angelico" (with a background actually painted in with illuminating gold). Such is really the case. There are unblushing plagiarisms of Dow's " Woman at the Window," of a Fra Angelico figure, of Raphael's "Madonna with the Plate," of a Carlo Dolci head, and probably of lesser lights. Now why did he imitate these pictures? Two theories may be enunciated. 1. It was either plagiarism, or, 2. It was experimental. He may have endeavored to show how closely a photographer could render such subjects as a painter had already expressed. Whatever the origin of such work it does not rank as a fine art at all, and if they are plagiarisms they are beneath contempt. The acute critic of the future must decide which they are. Now whatever their motive they either implanted or fostered a natural sentimentalism in Rejlander. It is most suggestive to the thinking critic that Rejlander picked upon such men as Dow, Dolci, Fra Angelico, and Raphael to imitate, for it conclusively shows his natural bent, and to my mind goes far to prove that he had but little artistic insight Whatever the origin of this spurious sentimentality, it shows itself in nearly every one of his works, excepting the scientific studies that I am coming to. The most flagrant examples are the two youths in the "Two Ways of Life"; "Fresh from the Cow"; "The Disciple"; a portrait of a child and another of a young woman caressing her heart; "The Message "— affected: a girl trying to catch hay-fever from pots of roses, yclept, "Girl Smelling Roses"; "The Glass that Cheers,"—artificial, and various gross and inelegant nudes. Sentimentalism, affectation, and artificiality are the three cardinal sins of this photographer, and they are three of the most deadly artistic sins. Rejlander seems to me to have possessed a most theatrical mind; his puppets seem to be acting in poses plastiques of a better kind, and this impression is strengthened by the careful but spurious amateur theatrical drop-scene in the notorious "Two Ways of Life." It is an improvised front-door-step scene, and is not very allegorical; rather suburban. We next come to another phase of this curious mind, i.e., combination printing. We cannot even give Rejlander the credit of originality on this score, for he was anticipated by Messrs. Berwick and Annan of Glasgow, who exhibited a combination picture—a figure in a landscape—in 1855, two years before the appearance of the "Two Ways of Life," in 1857. But to Rejlander is due the credit of developing this wrong-headed method to its highest possibilities: to a height never attained by his followers. For such jugglery the result is a marvel of manipulative skill, fifty-seven negatives being employed in making this combination. Such work necessarily crumbles before severe criticism, even in the fundamental facts of perspective tone and atmosphere, and the " Two Ways of Life" can no more bear this criticism than any other production of the same kind. The allegory, too, is not well worked out, the story is not well told throughout, but the artistic grouping of some parts is very clever and artistic. Its special artistic demerits are the sentimentality of the two youths starting on life—they look as if they were posing at a penny-gaff instead of starting on life, the youth choosing the path that leads to the straight and narrow way looks positively as though he could not help it, and I don't think he could. There was evidently not much choice in the matter. The two gamblers look as if they had dropped in from the stock exchange to while away an hour. Rejlander was a poseur, he delighted in dressing up as Garabaldi, whom he in noway resembled. Witness his parading before his friend, H.P.R., as a heroic volunteer—a real burlesque. The theatrical element seems to crop up everywhere. But turn we to the good parts of this notorious picture. The sirens, who would dally with the not unwilling youth, are capital. The arts and crafts as represented by a schoolmaster and globe, and especially the blacksmiths, are cleverly and artistically posed. Still the "Two Ways of Life " is a magnificent failure, and Rejlander had the sense to see it, for later on he denounced the practice of combination printing. Still all must be grateful to him for exploring its possibilities and suffering in so doing. Here he was a true pioneer, and his abjured " Two Ways of Life " still remains the crowning achievement in this field of work, or rather play. Among genre works we have " The Sweep and His Wife,"—sweep good, but no sense of proportion, harmony, or composition throughout; wife, a regular virago. That Sweep's life was not a happy one, and the wife herself answers the question, " What's Up Jim?" or something akin. The "Scripture Reader," suggesting the origin of a disciple's more recent work, is weak in grouping, and the models are so evidently posing and dressed up that all illusion is lost. "An Old Woman in a Chair," suggesting certain works that for some years have hailed from north of the Tweed, "An Old Rustic," in which it is evident that Rejlander had no sympathy with landscape, for this background is very "villay" and suburban. "Go Away Mamma" is an affected parody, sure to draw the gallery. As we analyze him we find what trivial and petty motifs delighted him; we find, too, from his great love of properties that his theatrical instincts tell stronger than his artistic. He is too indifferent to refinement and elegance, as is shown by the type of model chosen. I will but add they were not children of the Muses.
 
We now come to another phase of his experimental work, his studies to help illustrate the late Mr. Darwin's "Expressions of the Emotions." I do not know the history of these photographs, which are of a quasi-scientific nature. It is probable that Mr. Darwin asked him to illustrate certain emotions, stating specifically what he wanted. Mr. Darwin may even have supervised the work. Whatever their origin, when we consider the processes and tools of the period, they are most clever in overcoming manipulative difficulties, but even here Mr. Rejlander can lay no claim to originality, for Mr. Darwin says in his introduction: "Finally, I must have the pleasure of expressing my obligations to Mr. Rejlander for the trouble which he has taken in photographing for me various expressions and gestures. I am also indebted to Herr Kindermann, of Hamburg, for the loan of some excellent negatives of crying infants; and to Doctor Wallich for a charming one of a smiling girl. I have already expressed my obligation to Doctor Duchenne for generously permitting me to have some of his large photographs copied and reduced."
 
From an examination of the plates in Mr. Darwin's book I find that Rejlander acted some of the expressions, and again I say the theatrical instincts were stronger than the artistic, and, since his portrait appears so often in these plates and he was so fond of acting Garibaldi, I am afraid that he often expressed the emotion of vanity. These results, then, show clever manipulative skill, good histrionic powers, enthusiasm, the last being one of his finest qualities. Again there is another experimental series—the nudes. Rejlander had learned to model when a painter, but nevertheless these nudes clearly prove he had no feeling for form, and would never have succeeded as a sculptor, just as to my mind his other photographs prove he could never have become a painter of any consideration. Most of these nudes are taken from women of a fat and coarse type, they are clumsily posed, and some of the groups are positively gross. Rejlander's was not a refined nature; all his work shows that. And what is art without refinement?
 
As an ordinary portrait photographer he has since been surpassed by hundreds of men, and at that period he was commonplace; to wit: his "Tennyson," a stiff thing as crudely composed as is well possible. When we recall Mrs. Cameron's portrait of the same man we realize what a GULF separates the two people. Mrs. Cameron was naturally a thorough and gifted artist and a most refined one, too. Rejlander at times got dim flashes of the truth of artistic focus; but Mrs. Cameron (up to a point) gripped it at once and applied it with judgment and knowledge. His groups vary, thus the "Solar Club Dinner " is capital, but the group of "Friends " is equally poor. Let us now turn to his most successful works. I do not know at what period these were executed but he did just a few excellent things but no perfect work. Among these excellences are two or three heads of a more refined type, and the boy catching a fly, called "Catching," and the sequel (which is rough on the fly), "Caught." These have their faults, for that boy is dressed up, that smock is a property and the background is inartistic—the piebald wall cutting the boy. But the expressions and actions are admirable. Another good one is an old fellow in spectacles, looking out of a window in a three-pair-back in Haverstock Hill. An old gentleman at a table covered with papers is first-rate. Something too much has been made of the affected street arab warming his head in his hands. Why! he is as plump as Jenny Lee, whom I once had the pleasure of meeting. Why! that arab is so fat and nice that the Whitechapel savages would have promptly eaten him. The "Girl Reading in Bed," is decidedly one of the most artistic of the series, but eheu.' that bookstand, how little things do tell the mind of the delineator. The cats are good but nothing striking. The organ-grinder is good. And now I have done, and it must not be forgotten that my criticism is by no means searching. All the refinements of tone, composition, and poetry I have left untouched, for the very good reason that the works do not possess them. I find, then, that Rejlander was decidedly no genius, no artist, as I understand the word. I find him vain, sentimental, artificial, theatrical, but at the same time tremendously enthusiastic, energetically experimental, and best of all, self-sacrificing. I do not find him turning out bad work for money all the year and taking one picture per annum to go a-medaling with, and then posing in retired villa-affluence as an artist. No, Rejlander sacrificed everything for his art and the pity of it is that he did so little good by his self-sacrifices. I find, too, he did not write illiterate drivel on art, which showed his great good sense. The life of O. J. Rejlander is to me a most pathetic story, the story of a decidedly commonplace, uncultured, and unrefined mind struggling against its fate with a cheerful, fiery enthusiasm and self-sacrifice worthy of a better cause. The poor moth and the candle-flame are to me symbolical of his life. The man in some ways I admire and respect; he was a worthy pioneer. The "artist" I feel was but an artist of the green room.

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Oscar Gustave Rejlander
The Late O.G. Rejlander 
1875, 29 January
 
  
Family history 
  
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alan@luminous-lint.com
 
  
 
  

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer.Show on this siteGo to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online (www.groveart.com) has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
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Oscar Rejlander 
http://www.geh.org ... 
  
Oscar Rejlander, English (b. Sweden, 1813-1875) 
http://albumen.stanford.edu ... 
  
 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

 
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.51 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
  
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.426-427 
  
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.219-220 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 
  
 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

 
• Gruber, Renate and L. Fritz Gruber 1982 The Imaginary Photo Museum (New York: Harmony Books) p.257 
  
• Naef, Weston 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum - Handbook of the Photographic Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p.134 
  
• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Oscar Gustave Rejlander are included in this classic history.] 
  
• Sobieszek, Robert A. and Deborah Irmas 1994 the camera i: Photographic Self-Portraits (Los Angeles: LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art) p.229, Plate 6 [When the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection was donated to LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992 the museum gained a remarkable collection of self portraits of notable photographers. If you need a portrait of Oscar Gustave Rejlander this is a useful starting point.] 
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
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