Oscar Gustave Rejlander
Oscar Gustave Rejlander

The Two Ways of Life

Oscar Gustave Rejlander was born in Sweden around 1813 and died in London, England, 18 January 1875. He was a pioneering Victorian art photographer, who’s work at that time controversially included the nude, and in 1857 he made his best-known allegorical work called The Two Ways of Life.

The Two Ways of Life was a seamlessly montaged combination print made of thirty-two images, laboriously made by manual means before the existence of photoshop. It took about six weeks to produce and was first exhibited at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857. The once controversial work shows two youths being offered guidance by a patriarch. Each youth looks toward a section of a stage-like tableaux vivant – one youth is shown the virtuous pleasures and the other the sinful pleasures. The image’s partial nudity was deemed ‘indecent’ by some – and those familiar with Rejlander’s more commercial work might also suspect that prostitutes had been used as cheap models.

However much of the ‘indecency’ faded when Queen Victoria ordered a 10-guinea copy to give to Prince Albert. Despite this royal patronage, controversy about The Two Ways of Life in strait-laced Scotland in 1858 led to a secession of a large group from the Photographic Society of Scotland, the secessionists founding the Edinburgh Photographic Society in 1861. They objected to the picture being shown with one half of it concealed by drapes. The picture was later shown at the Birmingham Photographic Society with no such furore or censorship. Fortuitously the Photographic Society of Scotland later made amends and invited Rejlander to a grand dinner in his honour in 1866, held to open an exhibition that included many of his pictures.

All images © Oscar Gustave Rejlander