Saturday, November 17, 2012

Two Ways of Life

This is an interesting photograph, while we are talking about virtue and purpose yet again. It is by Swedish-English photographer Oscar Gustav Rejlander, and was assembled in 1857, near the dawn of photography.


It is from the Met's current exhibition "Faking it: Manipulated photographs before Photoshop." According to the Museum description of the picture:

The Two Ways of Life was one of the most ambitious and controversial photographs of the nineteenth century. The picture is an elaborate allegory of the choice between vice and virtue, represented by a bearded sage leading two young men from the countryside onto the stage of life. The rebellious youth at left rushes eagerly toward the dissolute pleasures of lust, gambling, and idleness; his wiser counterpart chooses the righteous path of religion, marriage, and good works.

It is not a single photograph, though. As I said above, it was asssembled, rather than capturing a single moment. The camera lies.

Because it would have been impossible to capture a scene of such extravagant complexity in a single exposure, Rejlander photographed each model and background section separately, yielding more than thirty negatives, which he meticulously combined into a single large print.

So it is a fascinating early example of a disjunction between photography and strict reported truth. The rest of the exhibition is excellent, and you should see it if you are in New York.

It is also an example of the leaden overwrought nature of Victorian morality. It is difficult to look at the picture without thinking of it as excessively didactic and mawkish, the kind of thing that gives any talk of virtue or aspiration a bad name, at least to our tastes. Perhaps one of the defining features of our age is a taste for irony or morals lightly worn (with a few exceptions). How do you ever talk about aspiration or virtue without seeming didactic or hypocritical?

The press and internet is full of the downfall of CIA Director David Patraeus, who seemed just a bit too perfect. It is very difficult to present the virtues as aspirations, something to aim for, rather than as empty didactic shells.

The two ways of life may be true in practice. We face choices in what we do, and our choices are not always good ones. But it is something that we often have to discover, rather than be told.


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