It is not known exactly when Rejlander started to take photographs at Darlington Street.
In the Wolverhampton Chronicle, November 15th 1854 there is an article entitled "Improvement in Calotypes, by Mr. O.G. Rejlander, of Wolverhampton". The description in the article suggests that by 1854 he had experimented with combination prints from several negatives. "Really making this art a handmaid to the painter".
One of his other friends was Rev. Edward Bradley who contributed Christmas articles to the Illustrated London News and produced cartoons for Punch under the name Cuthbert Bede. In 1855 he wrote an article describing a portrait session at Rejlander’s studio in about 1853. He described Rejlander as a light-haired, red moustachioed Swede with a fez. Bradley sat at his ease on a couch, backed by a screen of black velvet. The good natured operator, in the best English he could muster explained the nature of the process, even taking him into his darkroom. He remarked with great truth "When beebles do come for vaat you callbortraits, dey most not dink dey are in de leetle rum by demself, bot dey are having deir bortraits bainted before a crowd, oh! So vast! dat dey are on the stage of de theatre, wid den dousand beebles all a looking at dem, and not shot up here in de leetle rum, by demself. Now sare! Gompose your features for de bortrait: and when I say ‘Now!’ de operation will gommence"

Oscar Rejlander.

Portraiture was very difficult in those days as the exposure times could be as long as 10 or 12 seconds. To get the correct expression and the sitter to hold it for such a long time must have been very difficult in itself. Rejlander soon discovered that his prints quickly faded. It seemed as though he was writing on sand and felt like giving photography up. He managed to resolve the problem, which was partly caused by inadequate washing. Print washing was hard work for him because he had to carry water into the darkroom by the bucketful from a pump, which he shared with his neighbour.

Oscar was one of the leading members of ‘The Bachelors’, a society which organised social events for its members. He announced a ‘Bespeak’ at the Theatre Royal on behalf of his friend John Coleman for the great talent and ability he displayed as a dramatic artist and manager. John Coleman was the lessee of the Theatre Royal and unsurprisingly due to this friendship, some of his photographs were about the theatre. One of the most famous included Coleman posing as his character from ‘Belphegar’ which was performed at the Theatre Royal on 22nd January 1855

Rejlander believed that photography would make painters better artists and more careful draughtsman. He began to experiment with lighting to reduce exposure times and to accentuate outline and textures and also began to experiment in composition photographs, in which each print consisted of several images from different negatives. The technique was developed to overcome some of the inherent limitations of the wet collodian process. Due to the long exposures that were required, the lens was normally used at its widest aperture, which gave a small depth of field and made it difficult to get all of the sitters in focus in a group photograph. Composition photographs were difficult to print as the exposure from each negative had to be correct. Any error resulted in a ruined print and so the whole printing process would have to start again from the beginning. His first composition print was called ‘Groupe Printed From Three Negatives’ and was exhibited in December 1855. Rejlander was one of the first photographers to use this technique and certainly the most successful at the time. It is not known if he developed the process on his own or used the ideas of others.
The Wolverhampton Chronicle of January 30th 1856 includes an article describing Rejlander’s eminence in photographic art and noting that he had received a medal in the 1855 Paris Exhibition. It repeats a report from the Illustrated London News which stated that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had visited the Photographic Society's Exhibition and had ordered duplicates of no less than eight of the subjects he exhibited. Among them were two or three of his own local portraits, of which 5 were exhibited, in addition to the portrait of the Maha Raja Duleep Singh, taken during his recent visit to Lord and Lady Hatherton. The 5 local portraits are those of Lord Ingestre, ex-mayor. Mr. Wynn, Miss Rogers of Goldthorn Hill, Mr. Hurry a civil engineer, and Weston, one of the children of Mr. William Warner, junior.

In 1856 Rejlander was elected to the Royal Photographic Society of London and early in 1857 he completed one of his most famous and complex works called ‘The Two Ways of Life’. By April at least two separate prints of the work had been completed and one was shown to Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace.

Charles Benjamin Mander, a founder partner in Mander Brothers. Courtesy of Nicholas Mander.

Both Prince Albert and Queen Victoria were interested in photography and understood the wet collodian process. This was reported in the Wolverhampton Chronicle on April 15th 1857. The report stated that Mr. O.G. Rejlander had the honour of an interview with Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace on the previous Tuesday. He submitted a copy of ‘The Two Ways of Life’ to the inspection of His Royal Highness. The photograph had been produced in readiness for the forthcoming Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. Artists and photographers had been invited to display their best works at the exhibition, the patron was Prince Albert.

On April 29th 1857, the Wolverhampton Chronicle mentioned that Mr. Rejlander exhibited some photographs in the Manchester Exhibition in which specific reference was made to his studies of composition by means of many negatives printed into one group. A detailed description is given of his last production, an allegorical representation of life. Two versions of this photograph entitled "The Two Ways of Life" appear as frontispieces in Jones’ book1. Queen Victoria is said to have purchased a copy for Prince Albert for 10 guineas.

The Two Ways of Life (1857). From a carte-de-visite.

Following the exhibition a copy went on show at the South Kensington Museum and later the same year it was due to be exhibited at the Scottish Society’s Exhibition in Edinburgh. The Society refused to display the photograph because some of the figures were nude or semi-nude. They eventually agreed to display the photograph the following year with one half curtained off!

The photograph was also displayed at the Birmingham Photographic Society’s meeting in Old Fellows Hall, Temple Street, Birmingham, where it caused a sensation. The photograph was described as the finest of its class ever produced and was intended to show of how much photography is capable.

Rejlander started to make a name for himself and sold much of his work directly to the sitter or through art dealers and bookshops. An advert for his work appeared in the Illustrated London News on 7th February 1857. It stated that 50 of his best photographs, mounted on cardboard and in a portfolio, 22 inches by 18 inches was for sale, priced at 12 guineas. His Birmingham agent was E. Beckingham, chemist, of Great Hampton Street, and his London agent was probably Joseph Hogarth, 5 Haymarket.

This is believed to be Julia Mander. Courtesy of Nicholas Mander.
In April 1858 Rejlander addressed the Royal Photographic Society of London on the subject of ‘The Two Ways of Life’. He said that it took six weeks to complete the picture, which was taken using an old patched, cracked camera fitted with a Ross lens. The print was produced using a pressure printing frame, which was just less than half the size of the final picture. When printing he began with the foreground figures and finished with those in the background. He decided on the size of the foreground figures and used a pair of compasses to measure the size of the background figures on the focussing glass, taking the proportionate size from a sketch. The finished print covered two sheets of paper because of its large size.

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.

Rejlander was described as an artist in the Wolverhampton directories of 1847, 1849 and 1851 but in the 1858 and 1861 copies he is described as a photographic artist. The Wolverhampton directory for 1862–63 lists photographer James H. Bond as living at 42 Darlington Street. Rejlander had moved to London by then.

One of Rejlander’s most popular works was ‘Poor Joe’. On a visit to London he came across one of the many homeless children that frequented London streets at the time. The child was asleep in a doorway, lying in a crouching position. This was the inspiration for ‘Poor Joe’. On returning to Wolverhampton Rejlander found a similar child, dressed him in rags and photographed him in a similar pose. The finished work, which was exhibited in 1861 received a lot of attention, because it not only told a story but portrayed what was a serious problem at the time.

By 1860 the wet-plate collodian process had made earlier processes such as the daguerreotype and the calotype almost obsolete, even though the process was very problematic and difficult to master. At the time Rejlander was one of the leading experts in its use. He gave a lecture to the Birmingham Photographic Society called ‘The Camera of Horrors; or Failures in the Wet Plate’ in which he described many of the problems that he had encountered and his solutions to them.

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