Monday, June 3, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "At the Core" (on the Getty Museum of Art show Reljander: Artist Photographer)

at the core
by Douglas Messerli

Reljander: Artist Photographer / curated by Lori Pauli, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum of Art / I visited this show with Howard N. Fox and Pablo Capra on May 21, 2019

One of the very best photography shows of the year in Los Angeles was the large Getty exhibition showing of the Swedish born, London-based photographer, who went under his last name only, Rejlander (1813-1875).
      While most of the early photographers attempted to reproduce reality in their photographs, reminding us of the naturalistic focus of early photography and film and carrying on to even today’s “selfie” portraits, Rejlander, using intense studio techniques—costumes, poses, and carefully lit close-ups of his subject’s hands, feet, and facial expressions—created a highly artful sense of photos that remind us today of such various artists as Eleanor Antin, Cindy Sherman, and numerous others. Indeed, the Getty also has accompanied the Rejlander exhibit with a small showing of what it describes as an “Encore: Reenactment in Contemporary Photography,” including the work of Eileen Cowin, Christina Fernadez, Samuel Fosso, Yasumasa Morimua, Yinko Shonibare CBE, Gillian Wearing, and Qui Zhijie  that really might be truly fascinating if it were reconceived to show the large numbers of photographers who really worked with the kind of “artistic” repositioning of the genre from natural and realistic presentation to the manipulation of what the viewer is actually perceiving.
      Rejlander was, in fact, a master of making us believe that the images we saw, mostly recreated in his studio and processed through basically theatrical techniques—the photographer, we are told, actually directed his subjects—constantly on the move—who he had often found on the streets or through casual encounters, insisting on positioning them, carefully lighting them, and spinning around them as a kind of theatrical director to help them arrive at the positions in which he might shoot them. In a true sense, this photographer was like an early studio director, forcing his still-lives to play out stories that would later be seen in early and later cinema productions.
      Although the curator, Lori Pauli, doesn’t precisely say this in her highly intelligent wall commentary of the show, one might almost argue that was a kind of early film director who hadn’t yet found the proper medium in which to present his artistic aspirations.
       Stealing young boys and girls from the streets, this artist froze them into positions that they may, in fact, have experienced in street life: poverty, destitution, despair, and isolation from the society in which they existed, while also offering them up gentle myths of daily family life; yet the worlds he created for them, factual or imagined, were of his own making. He was so clever in his ability to demonstrate their various psychological attitudes, that Charles Darwin, a friend and subject of several of Rejlander’s photos, used his “emotional” portraits to demonstrate his own scientific views of human emotions.

       If today we might well mock him for the tricks of his photography, the melodramatic presentations, some straight out of Dickens, we need only to recall the works of Diane Arbus, presented always as actual societal “discoveries,” but actually representing carefully sought-out situations to fit into the frame of her own slightly perverse and societal concerns.
     If Sherman, perhaps, is a bit more honest in using her own body as the subject of her cinema-like fantasies, is it really that is not so very much different from William Wegman’s clever and charming in-studio portraits of dogs, just as artificially conceived as Rejlander’s street urchins and the beautiful women who posed for him?
      Indeed, it is possible that Rejlander’s work, as studio-based as it was, might have had an effect on social concerns almost as deeply as did someone like Jacob Riss, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, and Doreatha Lange. Their work may have been more “honest”—after all they went into the streets and child labor shops and shot what they saw there—whereas Rejlander made up just such scenes. But I dare to ask whether or not his wonderful “Poor Jo” might not have pulled on the heart strings of its 1870s viewers as strongly as the social realists of the early 20th century?
     Could a scene of a seemingly destitute worker, sitting up through the night next to his wife and daughter not have an important effect on his Victorian audience?
And then, there are is numerous nude scenes, imagined orgies—or, at least debauchery—and visions of sexuality long before his contemporaries were able to even admit to them. Rejlander was not a voyeur; he made them up, but in so doing expressed and obvious titillated what every Victorian knew was just below the surface, suggesting a bit of what Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) revealed in his own photographs of young girls—yet with a far greater abandonment that Eleanor Antin satirizes in her large-scale photographic studies. These photographs have something in common with the Baroque and painterly images of the late 18th and early 19th century artists, which take us into another time outside of the world in which Oscar G. Rejlander existed.
      In the end, this large photographic exhibit has to be seen rather than simply talked about, so erratic and broad was the artist’s vision.
Like many things in the 19th century, it was stuffed with historical sentimentality, but also challenged the very boundaries of the studio art in which he created it.
     Unlike some of the pieces in the adjunct show that accompanies his work—although I was delighted by my introduction to it—Rejlander’s art was not simply about gender, or family, or identity, but encompassed a broad view of the human comedy; even if it was all imaginary, created through his own camera and artistic techniques, it spoke to the core of human existence.

Los Angeles, May 27, 2019