Oscar Gustave Rejlander (English, born Sweden, 1813–1875). The Two Ways of Life, 1857; printed 1920s. The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford, United Kingdom
In the 1850s and early 1860s photography's potential as an artistic medium was a hotly debated topic: Could the camera transcend its mechanical nature and be used toward imaginative and expressive ends? For many Victorian critics, the aesthetic value of photography hinged on the artist's ability to creatively shape the raw material recorded by the camera's lens. By means of elaborate staging and combination printing—a technique in which portions of multiple negatives are combined into a single picture—photographers with artistic aspirations fabricated seamless tableaux, molding the real to the contours of the ideal.
The tradition of fine-art photography continued with Pictorialism, a movement that began in Europe in the 1880s and soon took hold in the United States. The Pictorialists sought to intensify photography's expressive potential through the use of soft-focus lenses, textured printing papers, and processes that allowed the surface of the print to be modified by hand. In many cases, photographers composed their pictures from two or more negatives, as did Edward Steichen in his heroic portrait of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Other artists, swept up in the currents of mysticism that captivated bohemian circles around the turn of the twentieth century, relied on staging and multiple exposure to reconcile the camera's clear-eyed factuality with the ethereal realm of myths, dreams, and visions.
Related Essay: "Pictorialism in America"