On the brink of Modernity, artists all over the globe buzzed with anticipation of a new, avant-garde art movement that allowed painters, sculptors, and architects alike to break free from traditional means of artistic patronage and dive head-first into a movement that inspired change, growth, and, for the first time, an uninhibited freedom to create. At the forefront of this crusade was a new mechanism of art that had not yet been explored prior to the 19th century: photography. Although members of the Avant-garde movement sought to break away from the strict rules of the Salons, a body of wealthy patrons who took it upon themselves to define what qualified as “art”, and singlehandedly destroying the integrity of any work that strayed from their ideals, artists remained wary of this budding medium which was unlike any method ever used before. Those opposed to photography as a fine art believed that it was a machine that captured the image, not the artist himself. Because of this, many early photographers sought to make their prints resemble fine paintings.
A prime example of this technique is Oscar Rejlander’s photograph “The Two Ways of Life” as compared to the famous artist Raphael’s “The School of Athens”. Similar in composition and subject matter, these two works are unmistakably linked. Raphael’s most notable masterpiece, “The School of Athens” is a large fresco painted on the interior of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. In it are portraits of the great thinkers Aristotle, Plato, and a self-portrait of Raphael himself. The setting in which the painting takes place is a basilica-shaped church, the Greek cross layout symbolizing the intersection of pagan philosophy and Christian theology, two major ideologies flourishing at the time. Framing the painting are allusions to Greek mythology. High-relief sculptures of the god Apollo and goddess Athena buttress the themes of renaissance thinking such as music, wisdom, and rebirth of the culture of classical antiquity.
Likewise, Rejlander’s photograph, composed of over thirty different images combined into one complete arrangement, has many similar references. “Rejlander emulated not only the artistic methods and ambitions of academic masters, but also their pretensions to high moral purpose.” (Arnason, 16) “The Two Ways of Life” tells the story of a pair of men presented with two different paths of life; the path of morality, vice, and virtue, and a life of “sin that so easily entangles”. Amidst the young apprentices stands a wise patriarch, guiding and imparting knowledge as Plato instructed Aristotle. On one half of the composition are erotic scenes of sexual indulgence, gambling, and lust, while the other half comprises ethical scenes of philanthropy, humanitarianism, and academia. Not only are the figures presented in a lackadaisical manner, lounging on the steps of an Italian cathedral as in “The School of Athens”, but their mannerisms and placement are also parallel. Architectural features such as the arched entryway, marble staircase and doric columns of Rejlander’s building mirror elements used in Raphael’s famous mural as well.
As time went on, this sudden shift from traditional means of artistic creation to modern techniques became more widely accepted. Photography as a method of fine art became more universally regarded as artists began to “purge their work of the artificial, academic devices…and instead report the world and its life candidly.” (Arnason 16) With the emergence of artists like Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot, who revolutionized photographic procedures with their creation of the Daguerrotype and Callotype, photography’s place in the art world not only established, but thrived, setting the stage for countless iconic works to come.