Navigate / search

Fellows Find: The ‘most wonderful’ images in an album of 19th-century photos of a fishing village in Glasgow

By Sara Stevenson

Sara Stevenson, a senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow, worked with the photographs of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson at the Ransom Center last fall. Her research, supported by the David Douglas Duncan Endowment for Photojournalism, will be used in a book she is writing for the J. Paul Getty Museum. Below, she shares some of her findings. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

In October 2013, I visited the Harry Ransom Center’s magnificent library, which holds impressive historic photographs and contains one treasure of particular Scottish importance: the album of photographs by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson taken between 1843 and 1846. Hill gave this set of photographs to marine painter Clarkson Stanfield, and Stanfield responded: “I sat up till nearly three o’clock looking over them. They are indeed most wonderful, and I would rather have a set of them than the finest Rembrandts I ever saw”—a remarkable, heartfelt statement.

 

The photographs were taken mostly in the fishing village of Newhaven, just to the north of Edinburgh on the river Forth.  They are the origin of social documentary photography. This, I am happy to say, ought to have been impossible, because the process they used, the calotype, was far too slow; exposure times might well be measured in minutes rather than fractions of a second. The series—more than 100 photographs involving several hundred figures—is a highly pleasing example of human intelligence and skill, both using and overcoming the incompetence of technology.  Social documentary photography is, to my mind, a high art form, demanding a sophisticated understanding of people—how to work with other people to make them appear to be themselves, in an active or powerful sense that speaks to strangers and, in this case, does so after more than 150 years.  This is in no way easy— “most wonderful” indeed.

 

The new research I am unearthing on this subject is due to be published by the J. Paul Getty Museum publications department in a year or two. The book will be a celebration, engaging both collections. I am more than grateful to have the endorsement of two such splendid American photographic departments of a great Scottish achievement in the art of photography.

 

By happy coincidence, the fellowship was founded in honor of the excellent photojournalist, David Douglas Duncan, whose splendid archive resides at the Center. It was enjoyable to work in the library with fine examples of his work on the wall, which connected me to the present. It was equally astonishing to find that the Center was staging a conference to celebrate the acquisition of the New York Magnum Photos archive and that they had persuaded such an impressive group of photographers to come, show photographs, and talk. I am still haunted by some of the pictures and was immensely cheered to listen to people talking with passion of their work and aims.

 

The Center offers a generous and helpful environment for intelligent work.

 

And I enjoyed Austin (not least because the sun shines, with only an occasional dramatic thunderstorm—and coming from Scotland at the dull, wet time of the year, this is a serious consideration!)

 

Image: David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson. A Newhaven Pilot. 1845.

Video showcases exhibition “The World At War: 1914–1918”

By Gabrielle Inhofe

A recent Longhorn Network video featured the Ransom Center’s exhibition The World At War: 1914–1918 as part of The Alcalde’s magazine program. The video includes interviews with exhibition co-curators Jean Cannon and Elizabeth Garver, as well as Professor Steven Isenberg, who taught a class on World War I this spring at The University of Texas at Austin.

 

The three discuss how the Great War shaped modern politics and conflict, paved the way for World War II, introduced new technologies, and changed attitudes about the nature of war. The exhibit, which runs through August 3, draws on the Ransom Center’s extensive collections to illuminate the experience of the war from the point of view of its participants and observers, preserved through letters, drafts, and diaries; memoirs and novels; and photographs and propaganda posters, prints, and more.

From the Outside In: Two portraits of James Joyce

By Alicia Dietrich

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows. Below, Ransom Center volunteer Karen White writes about two portraits of James Joyce on the windows.

 

The windows of the Harry Ransom Center show two drawings of James Joyce, one by Desmond Harmsworth and one by Wyndham Lewis, depicting very different sides of the famous writer. The Lewis drawing, dated 1920, shows a portrait of Joyce from the outside: head down, identifiable by the thick eyeglasses and small beard. Lewis was one of Joyce’s Modernist contemporaries—a novelist, experimental artist, and founder of the abstract art movement Vorticism. He was also a well-known curmudgeon and critic, and his sketch hints at the distance from which he approached his fellow artist. Harmsworth, in contrast, was one of Joyce’s publishers and enjoyed long evenings talking and drinking with the writer. His drawing expresses more of Joyce’s personal character.

 

Modernist author James Joyce is known for his experiments with stream-of-consciousness writing, especially in his most controversial novel, Ulysses. Joyce was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1882, into a large and no longer prosperous family. His literary interests and abilities were recognized when he was young, and he was educated in Jesuit schools and at University College Dublin, where he studied English, French, and Italian. Joyce enjoyed learning languages, especially when they added to his perspective on art; for instance, he admired playwright Henrik Ibsen, so he learned Norwegian to read Ibsen’s original texts. At Joyce’s death, he knew more than 17 languages, including Arabic, Sanskrit, and Greek. Joyce left Ireland in 1904 and made only four return visits, the last in 1912. He taught English in Trieste for a number of years, moved to Zurich during World War I, and then went to Paris, from which he and his family fled the Nazis in 1940 to return to Zurich. Despite leaving Ireland as a young man, Dublin society continued to be the backdrop for all of Joyce’s work, including the story collection Dubliners and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake.

 

Ulysses provides an in-depth perspective on life in Dublin at the beginning of the twentieth century, told through the thoughts and perceptions of a number of its citizens over one day, June 16, 1904, and in a kaleidoscope of styles. As Joyce commented to a friend, he wanted “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” This included aspects of life that until then had not been seen as fit for literature, from a trip to the outhouse to a voyeuristic encounter at the beach. The book was initially published in serial form in the journal The Little Review, but in 1921 it was banned in the United States for obscenity. Sylvia Beach published a complete edition of Ulysses in Paris in 1922, but it remained banned in the United States until 1933, although copies were smuggled in, and the book was widely known. When the American edition was published, the response was sometimes fierce. A reviewer in The New York Times commented that “the average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it” and that its narrative fashion was “in parodies of classic prose and current slang, in perversions of sacred literature… in symbols so occult and mystic that only the initiated and profoundly versed can understand.” When Joyce died in January 1941, the Times obituary stated that his status as a writer “never could be determined in his lifetime” and quoted critics who held a range of views. One placed him among the “Unintelligibles,” with Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot; another argued that Ulysses was a novel “which only could have been written ‘in an advanced stage of psychic disintegration;'” and a third hailed Joyce as one of “the great innovators of literature… whose influence upon other writers of his time was incalculable.” Today, the latter assessment is the one that prevails.

 

The Harry Ransom Center has collected all of Joyce’s works in depth, including four of the first 100 signed copies of Ulysses. It also has Joyce’s own Trieste library, which was formed between 1900 and 1920, comprising 673 volumes and including many source books used in his writing.

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

 

Meet the Staff: Archivist Amy Armstrong

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Meet the Staff is a new Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlight the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. The series kicks off with a Q&A with Amy Armstrong, who has been an archivist at the Ransom Center since January 2009 and is head of the Archives Cataloging Unit in the Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging Department. She holds a Master of Liberal Arts degree from St. Edward’s University and a Master of Science in Information Studies degree from The University of Texas at Austin. Armstrong has processed many collections at the Ransom Center, including the papers of Sanora Babb, William Faulkner, Paul Schrader, Denis Johnson, and the McSweeney’s publishing archive. She also catalogs non-commercial sound recordings in the Ransom Center’s holdings.  

 

Tell us about any current archives you’re working with.

I’m currently processing the records of McSweeney’s publishing house, which is a dream come true. I also catalog non-commercial sound recordings, which are sort of a “hidden collection.” We have almost 14,000 recordings, [including] some amazing recordings from Erle Stanley Gardner, Norman Mailer, and Denis Johnson. I’m committed to making them easier for patrons to find and use, and if they aren’t preserved, they’ll deteriorate.

 

What is your favorite collection that you have processed?

I actually love all of them, but one of my favorite collections is the Sanora Babb papers. Babb was an amazing woman who had big aspirations beyond the plains of Oklahoma and Kansas, where she lived in the early 1920s. After immigrating to California, she wrote a novel about Dust Bowl migrants. However, the contract for her book was cancelled, because John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was simultaneously being published. Babb was also married to cinematographer James Wong Howe, who was Japanese, at a time when interracial marriage was illegal. She loved life and didn’t take it for granted.

 

What is your favorite thing about your work?

My responsibility as an archivist is to ensure that the materials we’ve been entrusted to preserve are made available as widely as possible for anyone to use. I get such a thrill when I know someone has come into the Reading and Viewing Room and used a collection I have processed. After all, that’s why the Ransom Center exists and why are all so committed to the work we do here.

 

Have you had a favorite experience processing archives?

Denis Johnson autographed a book for my husband, who is a big fan. I was so touched by his kindness and generosity. It really made my year.

 

What is your favorite book?

The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea.

 

What is one of your primary interests?

Culinary history!

 

Have you lived anywhere unusual?

I grew up in San Antonio and lived for three years in England when my mom worked at RAF Alconbury, an American Air Force Base.

 

Related content:

View other blog posts written by Amy Armstrong

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.