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Fellows Find: Scholar studies the Sandinista revolution and the Contra War through the lenses of photojournalists

By Ileana Selejan

Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Front and back of press print “Nicaragua: 1978” from Magnum Photos collection.
Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Front and back of press print “Nicaragua: 1978” from Magnum Photos collection.

Ileana Selejan, Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, recently spent time in the Magnum Photos collection with a dissertation fellowship from the Ransom Center. Selejan’s work focuses on aesthetics in war photography and protest art at the turn of the 1980s, specifically on the Sandinista revolution, the counter revolutionary war in Nicaragua.

 

The primary resource I consulted while in residency at the Harry Ransom Center between October and November 2011 was the Magnum Photos collection. I was interested in photographs taken in Nicaragua during the 1978–1979 Sandinista revolution and the subsequent Contra War until circa 1989, and I mainly looked at work by Susan Meiselas, Larry Towell, Abbas, and Chris Steele-Perkins. Some key questions guided my research: What constituted the “subject” for each of these photographers? How are the Sandinistas portrayed? How well documented was the counter-revolutionary side? Is there documentation of combat? How comprehensive is it? What are the main differences between work done before, during, and after the revolution? How are the victims of the war portrayed? Broader questions having to do with authorship, subjectivity, and the role of the photographer, as both outside observer and “concerned” witness, were at the core of heated debates that divided the photographic community in the 1980s. Politics and ethics, as the long war in Nicaragua proved, were hard to separate from the photographic records. The complexity of the images produced in this period is furthered with the introduction of a discussion of aesthetics.

For instance, the use of color in Susan Meiselas’s photographs from the revolution (published first in the press and later in 1981 as a group of 72 images in her seminal book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979) was one of the most innovative aspects of the period. Yet throughout the eighties, other Magnum photographers working in Nicaragua—Abbas, Larry Towell, and Chris Steele-Perkins—chose to stay with the rather traditional war photography aesthetic, established by earlier generations of war photographers, from Robert Capa to Henri Cartier Bresson. This style was certainly not exclusively a Magnum feature, since the majority of the photographers working in Nicaragua, local and international correspondents alike, chose black and white over color.

For at least a few years, Nicaragua became a powerful, highly controversial subject in U.S. politics and media. It cast a looming shadow over the Reagan administration throughout most of its years in power. Especially as the war in El Salvador escalated in parallel to the war in Nicaragua, many human rights workers, volunteers, journalists, and writers became involved in one way or another with the repercussions of the wars in the whole region. The violence was documented in detail, both in images and in writing. Even so, a large part of these conflicts remained unseen, forgotten, or remembered by only few of the survivors. At the same time, the contributions of numerous photographers expanded beyond the mere photographic documentation of the war. For instance, in 1990, Larry Towell published Somozas’ Last Stand, Testimonies from Nicaragua—an undersized book that consists primarily of testimonies of the victims of the war, placed along a minimal selection of his own photographs.

In 1983 Susan Meiselas co-curated the exhibition Inside El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, which consisted of work by the majority of the photographers active during the war in El Salvador, including her own. It was intended as a protest show, and as it traveled in the U.S. and abroad, it attempted to raise awareness yet again to the brutal consequences of the involvement of the American government in the war. The original exhibition records, prints, and text panels are stored in the archives of the Ransom Center.

The wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador remain two of the most documented conflicts of the 1980s. Both were brutal in the extreme, and the abuses of both sides, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, remain largely perplexing. Perhaps the hardest challenge has been to look at images of atrocities in such great numbers. Even as a twice-removed witness, it has been a difficult task to create distance and assume the position of the historian.

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Learn more about the Ransom Center’s 2008 exhibition Inside El Slavador.

Making It New: The Bible and Modernist Book Arts

By Io Montecillo

"The Song of Song Which Is Solomon's" (1902).
"The Song of Song Which Is Solomon's" (1902).

Although the focus of The King James Bible: Its History and Influence is on the 400th anniversary of the Bible, the occasion presented an ideal opportunity to display early English Bibles from the Ransom Center’s collections and some of the finest examples of modern book design featuring Biblical texts.

Co-curators Richard Oram and Ryan Hildebrand write about the different ways printers, book designers, and artists have approached the artistic presentation of the King James Bible in “Making it New: The Bible and Modernist Book Arts.”

The King James Bible: Its History and Influence runs through July 29.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Please be aware that Photo Friday will be on hiatus during the summer, but will return in September.

Singer/Songwriters Lloyd Maines, Terri Hendrik, Monte Warden and Michael Hall perform at Wednesday’s Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Singer/Songwriters Lloyd Maines, Terri Hendrik, Monte Warden and Michael Hall perform at Wednesday’s Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Rachel Appel delivers her capstone presentation on digital asset management systems. Photo by Pete Smith.
Rachel Appel delivers her capstone presentation on digital asset management systems. Photo by Pete Smith.
Susan Buckley spoke about the work of her husband Peter Buckley photographer and author. Photo by  Pete Smith.
Susan Buckley spoke about the work of her husband Peter Buckley photographer and author. Photo by Pete Smith.

The Adventure of the Immortal Detective: Discovering Sherlock Holmes in the Archives

By Arcadia Falcone

The BBC’s modernized television adaptation Sherlock and the steampunk-inspired Hollywood blockbuster Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are only two of the most recent incarnations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective. The Ransom Center holds an eclectic array both of Sherlockiana and of materials illustrating Doyle’s diverse pursuits.

Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in the novel A Study in Scarlet, which received several rejections before being published in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual (alongside the forgotten tales “Food for Powder” and “The Four-Leaved Shamrock,” as well as some truly terrifying Victorian advertisements—“Steiner’s Vermin Paste, It Never Fails!”). The Center holds one of the 11 complete copies known to exist, as part of the Ellery Queen book collection. The Queen collection also includes books from Doyle’s true crime library, many of which previously belonged to W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).

The character of Irene Adler plays a significant role in both the mentioned recent adaptations, but she appears in only one Doyle short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Center’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle papers include the handwritten manuscript for this story, as well as a manuscript page from the most famous Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Doyle papers also contain some interesting oddities, such as Doyle’s laconic answers to an autobiographical questionnaire (His favorite food? “Anything when hungry—nothing when not”) and a fan letter Doyle wrote to Bram Stoker in praise of Dracula.

The popular image of Sherlock Holmes owes much to Sidney Paget, who illustrated the original publication of many of the stories in The Strand Magazine. It was he who put Holmes in the iconic deerstalker, never specifically mentioned by Doyle (Sherlockians will tell you that the “ear-flapped travelling cap” described in “Silver Blaze” is the closest reference). The Center’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle art collection includes two original Paget drawings featuring Holmes and Dr. Watson—but no deerstalker.

The Center’s collections also document fans’ longstanding obsession with Sherlock Holmes. Christopher Morley, whose papers the Center holds, founded the first American Holmes fan society, the Baker Street Irregulars, in 1934. Elsewhere in the collections, one may find a manuscript of Dorothy L. Sayers’s learned disquisition on the conflicting dates given in “The Red-Headed League,” a handwritten essay celebrating the centenary of Holmes’s purported birth by A. A. Milne, and T. S. Eliot’s perceptive review of the collected stories in a 1928 issue of the Criterion.

In later life, Doyle developed a strong interest in spiritualism and the supernatural. The Center holds a large collection of Doyle’s spirit photographs, in which ghostly apparitions hover over the living, as well as his copies of the Cottingley fairy photographs. Doyle used the photographs to illustrate an article he wrote for The Strand Magazine about fairies and interpreted the images as clear evidence of their existence. The Center’s personal effects collection includes Doyle’s Ouija board. (Also present: two pairs of his socks.)

Sherlock Holmes himself has had an afterlife to rival any of Doyle’s spirits. The Center holds some early examples of what today would be called fan fiction: Maurice Leblanc pits his gentleman thief against a Holmes substitute in Arsène Lupin versus Herlock Sholmes (1908); in the same year, the first in a series of Spanish plays paired Holmes with A. J. Raffles (himself a Sherlock-inspired figure from the pen of Doyle’s brother-in-law, E. W. Hornung). Holmes even went to Broadway in Baker Street: A Musical Adventure of Sherlock Holmes (1965). As a bumper sticker from the Baker Street Irregulars proclaims, “Sherlock Holmes is alive and well!”

Click on the thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Norman Bel Geddes: From the Nutshell Jockey Club to War Game to Futurama

By Jennifer Tisdale

Weekly report of Yellow Army's losses and gains. © Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Image courtesy the estate of Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes/Harry Ransom Center.
Weekly report of Yellow Army's losses and gains. © Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Image courtesy the estate of Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes/Harry Ransom Center.

From September 11, 2012, to January 6, 2013, the Harry Ransom Center hosts the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,
which explores the career of stage and industrial designer, futurist, and urban planner Norman Bel Geddes. The Ransom Center holds Bel Geddes’s professional archive, personal files, and library.

Writer/editor Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow and a recent Yaddo fellow, is working on a biography of Bel Geddes, tentatively titled Impossible Dreamer: The Eccentric Genius of Norman Bel Geddes.

Szerlip contributed the essay Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity: The Genesis of Futurama for the May issue of The Believer Magazine. In the piece Szerlip shares her discovery of the detailed private games that Bel Geddes created in the 1920s and early 1930s, which served as precursors to Futurama, the landmark exhibition he created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Even after 10 weeks of researching the collection at the Ransom Center, the material provided Szerlip with many surprises.

Szerlip reveals Bel Geddes’s meticulous creation of games, highlighting War Game and the Nutshell Jockey Club, which featured electrical horse races in Bel Geddes’s basement. The game attracted regulars such as New Yorker founder Harold Ross and Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield and Hollywood actors Ethel Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. For War Game, Bel Geddes’s rules were as thick as a phone book, and the board was 24 feet long and four feet wide.

“The humor and the insight into Bel Geddes’s character that this particular story provides were immediately obvious to me,” said Szerlip. “It was a short step from the games to Futurama and beyond—work he subsequently did for the military during WWII. It was just a question fleshing it all out and then assembling the bits and pieces.”

“There have been many wonderful, even startling, surprises. And more, I’m sure, to come when I return to Austin this fall.”