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Fellows Find: Women behind the camera in and beyond the studio

By Margaret Denny


Press pass for British photojournalist Christina Broom. 1910.
Press pass for British photojournalist Christina Broom. 1910.

Margaret Denny received a Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship to conduct research in the Ransom Center’s Gernsheim collection. Below she shares some of her findings at the Ransom Center.

During the past decade, I have conducted primary research on Victorian women in photography, an investigation that culminated in my dissertation From Commerce to Art: American Women Photographers 1850–1900 (University of Illinois at Chicago, 2010).

My current project For Love and Money: Victorian women photographers in and beyond the studio follows a select group of nineteenth-century American and British women photographers operating in the commercial realm of advertising, photojournalism, studio portraiture, and travel photography. The importance of this investigation is that current scholarship on the history of photography has diminished the importance of commercial work; it likewise has overlooked women in the commercial sphere.

With a fellowship at the Ransom Center, I have progressed closer to realizing my project as a publication. In pondering this experience, several impressions stand out—the Center as a rich repository of photographs and ephemeral materials, and, co-equal, the Center’s proficient staff members and systems that provide a stimulating, nurturing, and collegial environment in which to explore one’s topic. Through the proficient and patient stewardship of Emilio Banda and suggestions proposed by Senior Research Curator Roy Flukinger and Associate Curator of Photography Linda Briscoe Myers, I was able to navigate smoothly through box upon box of photographs, biographical material, and memorabilia. Even the tradition of weekly coffees and a brown bag lunch for fellows offers scholars and staff opportunities to exchange insights and information.

The Gernsheim collection of Victorian and Edwardian photography amassed by Helmut and Allison Gernsheim in England at the end of World War II and purchased by the Harry Ransom Center in 1963 became the focus for this study. The collection holdings present a rich glimpse into elite British society through the studio portrait practice of Alice Hughes. I viewed the wealth and breadth of photographs made by Hughes at the turn of the twentieth century in her London studio. Having researched Hughes at the National Portrait Gallery in London, it was beneficial to evaluate this expansive number of photographs to build on my earlier inquiry.

Another chronicler of Britain’s elites, Kate Pragnell operated commercially in London in the 1890s. The Center’s illustrated article on Pragnell showed her photography in more of its original context. The fact that Pragnell hired only women workers in her studio and wrote about her practice makes her an interesting case study.  These British women will be compared with the American photographers Frances Benjamin Johnston and Gertrude Käsebier as they shared the experience of being middle- to upper-class women who chose photography as a vocation. To investigate the media treatment of American and British women photographers, I reviewed issues of The Photogram published in England between 1894 and 1905 by American Catharine Weed Barnes Ward and her British husband H. Snowden Ward. Likewise, as a comparison to understanding opinions emanating from other journals of photography, I examined the issues of Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work, published from 1903 to 1917.

Equally germane to my investigation, the Center’s holdings contain over 350 photographs by British photojournalist Christina Broom. A documentarian of Edwardian fame, Broom photographed important British events from military maneuvers to Royal pageantry, most printed as picture postcards, a business that supported her family facing the loss of household income after her husband’s accident. In my project, Broom will be compared to Frances Benjamin Johnston, who operated as a photojournalist working with Bain News Service in America. Johnston’s assignments took her to Naples, Italy, where she photographed Admiral Dewey and his U.S.S. Olympia crew following their successful campaign in the Philippines during the Spanish American War. Equally notable, Johnston was the last photographer to photograph President McKinley, 17 minutes before his assassination in 1901.

As a seasoned researcher at a number of institutional archives, I feel the time spent at the Ransom Center put me in a more positive position to take my findings to publication. Because the staff made research suggestions beyond my original itinerary, I will be able to incorporate even more information in the study. As I continue to research the topic of women photographers of the Victorian Era into the Edwardian period, my larger goal is to develop the information into book format supported by a traveling exhibition. Having the opportunity to conduct research at the Ransom Center and to develop the narrative of women in the commercial realm of photography places me one step closer toward the realization of this major undertaking.

In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes’s 1931 film of "Hamlet" production

By Ady Wetegrove

By the time Norman Bel Geddes began work on a contentious adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1931, he was considered an established theatrical designer and a pioneer of the New Stagecraft movement in America. Collaborating with literary advisor Clayton Hamilton, Bel Geddes abridged the play in order to communicate Shakespeare’s text through the characters’ actions, rather than rely on realistic backdrops or extended soliloquies. In addition to marking Raymond Massey’s American theater debut, the production of Hamlet served as the subject of Bel Geddes’s own amateur documentary film.

Throughout his career, Norman Bel Geddes filmed the genesis of his design projects to record each stage of the creative process. Bel Geddes also used film to produce amateur motion pictures on subjects such as insect behavior and ones in which he portrays an imaginary naturalist named Rollo.

Of the major American productions of Hamlet in 1931, critics deemed Bel Geddes’s version the most radical. Serving as both designer and director, Bel Geddes sought to transform the classical literary piece into a modernized, emotionally charged, melodramatic production. Bel Geddes’s controversial Hamlet elicited outcries from many Shakespearean enthusiasts who found Bel Geddes’s experimentation distasteful. Bel Geddes’s aim, however, was not to recreate a traditional depiction of the Shakespearean tragedy but instead, to “produce upon a modern audience an emotional response as similar as possible to that which Shakespeare produced upon his Elizabethan audience.”

Although Bel Geddes had experimented with powerful bursts of focused colored lighting in earlier productions such as The Miracle, his lighting innovations in Hamlet eclipsed all previous techniques. Highly concentrated light illuminated actors on one raised platform, while stagehands worked in darkness to prepare other scenes on adjacent platforms. A technologic innovation in 1931, the sharply focused light contributed to Bel Geddes’s vision of an updated and modernized Hamlet.

Bel Geddes developed a spatial arrangement that aligned with the characters’ actions rather than the traditional patterns of movement. Specifically, he positioned steps and platforms diagonally on stage at New York’s Broadhurst Theater. The austere, architectural set and minimalist style of the geometric blocks fostered dynamic movement on the stage, and the production adopted a swift, cinematic pace.

Hamlet is one of the few filmed theater productions that survives in Bel Geddes’s archive. The 16-millimeter black and white footage shown here is an excerpt from an hour-long amateur documentary in which Bel Geddes captures every phase of the development of Hamlet—from the creation of models and action charts, to rehearsals, and opening night. The Hamlet documentary, which offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of 1930s theater productions and of Bel Geddes’s creative process, is one of over 300 short films by Norman Bel Geddes housed in the Ransom Center’s moving image archives.

Because Bel Geddes filmed Hamlet with two different types of 16-millimeter film—reversal film and negative film—on the same reel, the film deteriorated at different rates, causing preservation difficulties. The digitization of Bel Geddes’s films was made possible by grant support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Learn more about Bel Geddes in the Ransom Center’s exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, on display through today.

Ransom Center seeks input on draft report about acquisition of born-digital materials

By Jennifer Tisdale

Born-digital materials.
Born-digital materials.

In 2011, Ransom Center Digital Archivist Gabriela Redwine, with Assistant Director Megan Barnard, invited an international team of colleagues to engage in a series of conversations about how born-digital materials are acquired and transferred to archival repositories. Ten archivists and curators from the Beinecke Library at Yale University; the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford; the British Library; the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University (MARBL); and the Rubenstein Library at Duke University joined with the Ransom Center to create the report Born Digital: Guidance for Donors, Dealers, and Archival Repositories, which offers recommendations to help ensure the physical and intellectual well being of digital media and files during different stages of the acquisition process.

A draft of Born Digital has been published with MediaCommons Press, an online publisher that allows readers to offer feedback via an easy-to-use commenting interface. The authors of the report encourage manuscript dealers, writers, special collections professionals, and other custodians of archival materials to read the report, offer feedback and suggestions, and take part in a discussion with the larger community of individuals concerned about the acquisition and preservation of born-digital materials. The authors will closely review comments posted by readers and carefully consider this feedback when they revise Born Digital for final publication in the coming months.

The main body of the report surveys the primary issues and concerns related to born-digital acquisitions and is intended for a broad audience with varying levels of interest and expertise in the subject. Appendices provide information about how to prepare for the unexpected and possible staffing costs to repositories, as well as ready-to-use checklists that incorporate recommendations from throughout the report. These recommendations are not meant to be universal and do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the authors’ institutions. Rather, they offer broad, useful guidance for donors, dealers, and repository staff involved in the acquisition and transfer of born-digital materials.

TIME's LightBox lists 'Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews' as one of photobooks of the year

By Jennifer Tisdale

LightBox, TIME’s photography blog, included the anthology Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews (University of Texas Press, 2012) as one of its “2012 photobooks of the year.”

Jessica S. McDonald, the Ransom Center’s Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography, edited the anthology, which provided the first comprehensive overview of Lyons’s career as one of the most important voices in American photography.

In anticipation of Lyons’s November 8, 2012, visit to the Ransom Center, McDonald shared insight about the photographer, curator, and educator.

Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews is available online through University of Texas Press.