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In the galleries: Jason Reed’s "Motel, Terlingua" and W. D. Smithers’s "View of Study Butte, Texas"

By Abigail Cain

Jason Reed, "Motel, Terlingua," 2011. Courtesy of artist.
Jason Reed, "Motel, Terlingua," 2011. Courtesy of artist.
W.D. Smithers, "View of Study Butte, Texas," 1932.
W.D. Smithers, "View of Study Butte, Texas," 1932.

As photographer Jason Reed sat in the reading room of the Ransom Center, awaiting a box of Walker Evans photographs, he noticed a binder on the reference shelf nearby. In what he calls a “moment of coincidence,” he picked it up and discovered notes and captions describing photographs of West Texas—both the place he grew up and the area he has spent his life exploring through video and photography.

The binder contained a finding aid to the work of early-twentieth-century photographer W. D. Smithers, whose archive is held by the Ransom Center. Although 80 years separate the two artists, their work shares an uncanny similarity—take Reed’s Motel, Terlingua (2011) and Smithers’s View of Study Butte, Texas (1932) as an example.

The relationship between archives and the work of modern-day artists is the subject of the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive. Created in conjunction with the Lakes Were Rivers collective, an Austin-based group of artists working in photography and video, the exhibition highlights members’ works that were influenced in some way by the Ransom Center. Approximately 50 new works are displayed alongside Ransom Center collection materials chosen by the artists.

Smithers began his career in commercial photography when he was 15 years old, eventually working as an aerial photographer for the U.S. Army Aviation Service during World War I. Between 1935 and 1939, under a contract with the International Boundary and Water Commission, Smithers photographed the entire U.S.-Mexican Border from Brownsville to San Diego.

Reed, too, focuses on the interplay between culture and land in the Texas-Mexico borderland. By pairing his and Smithers’s works, he said, “I work to elicit historical comparison and dialogue with the past while also creating space to reflect on photography’s role as an index of place and time, its inherent limitations in telling histories, and the archive as a catalyst in forming new ways of seeing.”

Motel, Terlingua and View of Study Butte, Texas are on display in the Ransom Center until August 4. On July 18, the artists of Lakes Were Rivers will discuss their work at 7 p.m. in the galleries.

Ransom Center acquires papers of writer Barbara Probst Solomon

By Alicia Dietrich

Barbara Probst Solomon's press pass for "The New York Review."
Barbara Probst Solomon's press pass for "The New York Review."

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of Barbara Probst Solomon, a prolific writer and chronicler of twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture. The collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, published books, first drafts, interviews, documentaries, and photographs.

Solomon’s career as a writer began shortly after her graduation from Dalton High School in New York City. Bypassing college, Solomon moved to postwar Paris, where she met Spanish students who would later form the resistance movement to Francisco Franco’s dictatorial rule of Spain, which began during the Spanish Civil War. In 1948, she met Barbara Mailer, Norman Mailer’s sister, and they helped activist Paco Benet rescue two Spanish students who had been enslaved in Cuelgamuros, Franco’s labor camp.

Solomon became a notable voice of the 20th-century New York intellectual scene at a time when few women were featured in prominent literary and news publications. Her manuscripts form an integral part of her archive. Her books, including the novel The Beat of Life (1969) and her memoir Arriving Where We Started (1972), have received critical praise, and her memoir was heralded as “the best, most literary account of the intellectual resistance to Franco” when it won the Pablo Antonio de Olavide prize in Barcelona.

Solomon’s archive offers an important snapshot of twentieth-century history and culture. Solomon corresponded extensively in English, French, and Spanish with close friends, and the archive reflects her strong connections with other intellectuals and writers of her time. Solomon had a lifelong friendship with Norman Mailer, and letters and other materials relating to Mailer’s life and works are present. She had a long affair and close friendship with American novelist and screenwriter Clancy Sigal, and her collection contains extensive correspondence about their writings and lives. Mailer’s and Sigal’s archives both reside at the Ransom Center.

Solomon’s archive will be available for research once processed and cataloged.

In the galleries: Alvin Langdon Coburn’s "Vortograph" and Barry Stone’s "Sky 3099"

By Abigail Cain

Barry Stone, "Sky 3099," 2012. Courtesy of artist.
Barry Stone, "Sky 3099," 2012. Courtesy of artist.
Alvin Langdon Coburn, "Vortograph," 1917.
Alvin Langdon Coburn, "Vortograph," 1917.

Although almost a century separates Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Vortograph (1917) and Barry Stone’s Sky 3099 (2012), Stone still finds parallels between the works. It is this connection between old and new that informs the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive.

Created in conjunction with the Lakes Were Rivers collective, an Austin-based group of artists working in photography and video, the exhibition highlights members’ works that were influenced in some way by the Ransom Center. Approximately 50 new works are displayed alongside Ransom Center collection materials chosen by the artists. The pairings illustrate how archives and cultural collections stimulate new ideas and creative acts.

Widely acknowledged as the first consciously created abstract photographs, Coburn’s vortographs were taken using a kaleidoscope-like instrument that fit over the lens of a camera to reflect and fracture the image. Their name comes from the term “Vorticist,” which describes an avant-garde British artistic and literary movement spearheaded by Wyndham Lewis and influenced by Cubism.

In many ways, Coburn’s earlier technical photographic experiments mirror Stone’s current work—black-and-white digital captures of landscapes in which Stone has altered the image file’s code or machine language in a text-editing program. This process, called databending, creates visual hiccups within the otherwise unaltered image. Stone’s Sky 3099 provides an example of the technique, billowing clouds interrupted by swaths of visual static. As the artist notes, “The noise, therefore, becomes more like the signal. The anomaly or glitch is assimilated into the image and reveals not only the methods of its assembly but also a glimpse of new perceptual possibilities.”

Both Sky 3099 and Vortograph are on display through August 4. On July 18, the artists of Lakes Were Rivers will discuss their work at 7 p.m. in the galleries.

Archivist traces manuscript waste in a set of volumes back to a dark origin in Frankfurt

By Micah Erwin

These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.
These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.

It was a bitterly cold day in Frankfurt when my wife and I stepped off the plane. Being from Texas, we quickly found that our bodies were not acclimated to the bitter winter winds of Europe. Our cab dropped us off near the central square of the city so we could get some hot spiced wine at the market. On our way back to our apartment, we spotted a public building across the street, the Museum Judengasse, and decided to take a tour and thaw out before braving the rest of the journey.  The museum contained the archeological remains of the Frankfurter Judengasse—the Jewish Ghetto of Frankfurt—one of the earliest ghettos in Germany.

About two years later, I encountered something in the stacks of the Harry Ransom Center that brought me back to that cold day. While conducting a search for medieval manuscript fragments used in bindings of early printed books, I came upon a set of four small volumes of German poetry printed in Frankfurt in 1612 and bound in parchment. The parchment contained medieval Hebrew script.  I had not yet encountered this phenomenon (I was used to finding texts in Latin), and, although I posted images of the volumes on Flickr, I received no immediate comments. Several months went by and I had almost forgotten about them when one day I happened to mention the fragments to a colleague who suggested that I contact a Hebrew specialist cataloger.  I was then put in touch with the proper authorities and within a few days the fragments had been identified. Included are a fragment from a series of commentaries on late antique Hebrew liturgical poetry (dating anywhere from the twelfth to fifteenth century), a page from the table of contents from a circa fifteenth-century copy of a work by Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil, and fragment from a twelfth–to-fourteenth-century commentary on the Talmud. Having them identified was an exciting example of international collaboration between scholars, but it is the historical context of the fragments that brings this story full circle.

In the sixteenth century, the Jewish community of Frankfurt was one of the most important centers for Rabbinic teaching and spiritual thought. It was also one of the largest Jewish communities in early modern Europe. In 1612 tensions between the town guilds and the patrician class over urban and fiscal policies led to a riot known as the Fettmilch Rising. During the course of the riot the Judengasse, or Jewish Ghetto, was attacked and looted and the Jewish inhabitants were expelled from the city. The volumes at the Ransom Center were printed in the same year as the Fettmilch Rising (1612). Given the looting that took place it is highly probable that the fragments used to cover the printed volumes were sourced from Hebrew manuscripts that had been taken during the riot and then cut up and sold for a variety of purposes—including bookbinding. And so here the volumes now sit, deep in the heart of Texas, a tragic reminder of early modern anti-Semitism in Germany. As an American, it’s often difficult to place these priceless objects in context, and when one does, it tends to have a dramatic effect on the psyche.

Our set happens to be missing two volumes. One can only hope that the other two volumes are still out there intact. This situation underscores why it is important to avoid removing medieval fragments from their bindings. When we do so, the historical context of their use as binder’s waste may be lost. With the power of crowdsourcing and online collaboration, all of the fragments from the original manuscript may someday be reunited in a virtual environment—a happy conclusion to the tragic circumstances of its dispersal many centuries ago.

The post author would like to thank Kevin Auer, Uri Kolodney, Elizabeth Hollender, Ezra Chwat, and Pinchas Roth for their assistance in identifying the Hebrew fragments.