Camp and Rejlander

Oscar Gustaf Rejlander, Two Ways of Life (Hope in Repentance), 1857. Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Hey, heard anything about camp lately? The campiest photographer of Victorian England, Oscar Gustaf Rejlander, is now having his first-ever retrospective at the Getty. Not that camp was a thing back then, nor that Rejlander would have aspired to it.

Camp taste "relishes rather than judges," as Susan Sontag wrote. "What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures." In "Notes on Camp" (1964) Sontag articulated a mostly urban gay aesthetic that was becoming central to the emerging Pop movement. Camp also describes the usual contemporary reaction to the picture that made Rejlander's reputation, and secured him a small though solid niche in photographic art history: Two Ways of Life (1857). It's a moralizing potboiler collaged from multiple negatives. Its original audiences had never seen anything like it, a salon "painting" with the verisimilitude of a photograph.

The fascination of the Getty's "Oscar Rejlander: Artist Photographer" is that it zooms out to survey the full production of this Swedish-born photographic pioneer. It gravitates between two ways of art, respectably serious and camp. It's no surprise which wins here. I was most taken, not by Two Ways, but by a less-heralded picture with an equally remarkable title: Mental Distress (Mother's Darling).
Oscar Gustaf Rejlander, Mental Distress (Mother's Darling), 1871. The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A. Image (c) Victoria & Albert Museum, London
It's a sepia-toned image of a crying baby that looks rather too much like a middle-aged man. The picture is poised uncomfortably between photography and painting; between camp and regular, boring reality.

It's an amazing photograph even before you learn one jaw-dropping fact: It was commissioned by Charles Darwin. The naturalist was writing a book on facial expressions and asked Rejlander to supply photographs.

Rejlander took a baby photo to represent "mental distress." It was too small to reproduce well in Darwin's book. Rejlander made a drawing after the photograph, and photographed the drawing with a solar enlarger.
Oscar Gustaf Rejlander, Mr. Collett's Return, 1841. Usher Gallery, Lincoln, UK
Rejlander earned his living as a draftsman and painter before taking up photography. Mr. Collett's Return, a large chalk and charcoal drawing in the show, demonstrates a similar graphic style. But as a photograph of a drawing (of a photograph) Mental Distress exists on a different, accidentally post-modern plane.

Rejlander printed many copies of Mental Distress and sold them as independent works of art. It was identified with the child-hero of Ginx's Baby, a satirical novel by Edward Jenkins that was published the same year (1871).

The Getty is pairing the Rejlander show with "Encore: Reenactment in Contemporary Photography," a selection of works by seven artists who revisit staged (and stagey) photography. All are women or persons of color who use tableaux vivant to tweak a history of exclusion. The connection to Rejlander might seem facile. On the other hand, Rejlander's mission was to counter the "exclusion" of photography from the fine arts, and he did this mainly by staging photographs to look like Old Master paintings.
Yasumasa Morimura, Daughter of Art History, Theater A, 1989. J. Paul Getty Museum
If staged photography didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent it. With or without Rejlander, we'd still have Yasumasa Morimura. But the particular form of uncanniness achieved in Mental Distress (Mother's Darling) is a less obvious invention, more idiosyncratic. The photograph of a drawing of photograph is central to the work of Amy Adler and (in a way) Vik Muniz.

Art, like poetry, is about the impossibility of translation. Forget the runway—there's your passionate failure.
Amy Adler, Amy Adler Photographs Leonardo DiCaprio, 2001