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Editor of “Reading Magnum” explores Magnum Photos collection

By Steven Hoelscher

Steven Hoelscher, editor of Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World, will discuss the book at The Contemporary Austin tonight in an event hosted by Austin Center for Photography, University of Texas Press, and The Contemporary.

 

The arrival in December 2009 of some 200,000 press prints from Magnum Photos’s New York bureau represented a remarkable opportunity for scholarship—and a substantial challenge. Although Magnum’s photographers had received considerable individual attention and lavish coffee table books have reproduced their iconic images, no scholarly work to date had assessed the photo agency’s visual archive. Important retrospectives have been published, but their textual brevity and the fact that the photo agency itself produced them suggested the opportunity for a critical, independent study.

 

Thus, the time seemed ripe to dig into the collection, to see what’s there, and to consider how the photographs fit into a larger cultural history. Here, of course, is where the challenge arises. How to approach the photo collection? What sort of organizational frameworks would seem to be most appropriate? What should the resulting publication look like? I spent roughly six months combing through the 1,300 archival boxes to find answers to these questions.

 

During this preliminary research, several things occurred to me.  First, while nearly limitless possibilities of scholarly frameworks existed, a half dozen themes kept emerging as I studied the contents of the archival boxes. War and conflict, of course, was important, but so too was portraiture and geography. What’s more, cultural life, social relations, and globalization stood out as recurring themes.

 

Second, it became immediately evident that three years would not be nearly long enough for me alone to take on such a project, and it was always my intention for the volume to be published in conjunction with the current exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, which was curated by Jessica S. McDonald and Roy Flukinger. The book would necessarily be one of collaboration. Here, I was fortunate to be joined by seven distinguished scholars for this project. They are trained in a range of academic fields—art history, journalism, literature, cultural history, geography, cultural studies, communications, and visual studies—for the simple reason that no one perspective can adequately encompass the Magnum archive’s reaches. Each contributor spent considerable time with the collection at the Ransom Center, and each brings his or her unique point of view to the collection’s materials.

 

What each chapter shares is a concern for historical and cultural context that is so often missing when photographs are disconnected from their original settings.

 

Finally, I wanted the book to reflect the dual nature of photographs: that they were both physical objects and the bearers of compelling imagery. With this in mind, two sets of works—bookends, if you will—surround each chapter. I included a set of “Notes form the Archive,” which emphasizes the materiality of the photograph and traces its trajectory, from annotated press prints to distribution to eventual publication. A “Portfolio” then follows each chapter, illustrating something of the depth and range of the images carried by a photograph.

 

Putting this book together has been a real labor of intellectual love. The deeper I dug into the Magnum Photos collection, the more impressed I was by the depth, range, and artistry of the contents. It’s my hope that Reading Magnum reflects something of the collection’s power.

In the archive: Ed Ruscha’s “Twentysix Gasoline Stations”

By Alicia Dietrich

Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a thin paperback that resembles an industrial manual of the 1960s, is often considered to be the first modern artist’s book. The book is exactly what the title describes: 26 images of gasoline stations along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City.

 

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Oklahoma City, Ruscha was living and working in Los Angeles in the 1960s and frequently traveled the route between the two cities to visit his family.

 

“I just had a personal connection to that span of mileage between Oklahoma and California,” Ruscha told NPR earlier this year on the 50th anniversary of the book. “It just, it kind of spoke to me.”

 

In an interview with Avalanche magazine in 1973 he said, “I’d always wanted to make a book of some kind. When I was in Oklahoma I got a brainstorm in the middle of the night to do this little book called Twentysix Gasoline Stations. I knew the title. I knew it would be photographs of twenty-six gasoline stations.”

 

So, Ruscha documented gas stations along that route in black-and-white photographs and labeled them with their locations, from “Texaco, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles” to “‘Flying A, Kingman, Arizona” to the final image “Fina, Groom, Texas.”

 

Ruscha published the book at age 26 in a run of 400 numbered copies in April 1963. Though it was the same year as Ruscha’s first solo exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, the book didn’t initially receive a warm reception. In a 1963 letter, the Library of Congress declined to add a copy to their collection, noting the book’s “unorthodox form and supposed lack of information.”

 

The book gradually acquired cult status in the 1960s, and a second edition was published in 1967 and a third in 1969. Surviving first editions of the book are rare.

 

Ruscha’s archive, which was recently acquired by the Ransom Center, includes snapshots of the gas stations, Ruscha’s notes about the project, the Library of Congress letter, and an advertisement with the headline “REJECTED Oct. 2, 1963 by the Library of Congress.”

 

Related content:

Oof. Peek inside the Ed Ruscha archive

 

Oof. Peek inside the Ed Ruscha archive

By Peter Mears

Four large bins containing the archival material of artist Ed Ruscha arrived at the Ransom Center recently. Packed and carefully layered within were boxes, tubes, and portfolios containing Ruscha’s notable creations on paper. The collection includes his limited edition artist’s books and deluxe suites of prints, photographic publications, colorful exhibition posters, prints of his 16 mm movies, and a rich assortment of papers and journals documenting the creation of his publications and art commissions and referencing his various literary influences. Together, this material represents the achievements of a remarkable artistic career that spans more than half a century.

 

Born in 1937, Ed Ruscha is considered today to be one of the most important artists of his generation. Words and wry phrases have always played a central role in his artwork, beginning with the West Coast Pop Art phenomena of the 1960s where his roots run deep. For Ruscha, whose background includes commercial art and typesetting, words are visually malleable and can carry multiple meanings. “I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again,” Ruscha once said.

 

Arts writer, Calvin Tomkins, summed it up best: “His (Ruscha’s) early paintings are not pictures of words but words treated as visual constructs.”

 

Single word paintings with odd titles such as Oof (1963) and Boss (1964) were early precursors to more complex works such as the series of rhyming prints titled News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues (1970), which are included in the archive.

 

Ruscha’s art would evolve and expand intellectually—Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns were early influences—to become beautifully crafted and complex conceptual works of art, which have been described over the years as being comedic, deadpan, and elegantly laconic.

 

West Coast car culture and commutes on Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma where Ruscha grew up all helped inspire many of his photography-based artist’s books such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), Royal Road Test (1980), and Parking Lots (1999). All are represented in the archive.

 

Most recently published is On the Road (2010), Ruscha’s limited edition artist book of the classic novel by Jack Kerouac (1922–1969). The archive includes full-size mockups of the book, annotated copies of the novel, sketches, photographs, correspondence, and business papers. These materials resonate perfectly with the Ransom Center’s own collection of materials related to Beat Generation authors, which includes the journal that Kerouac kept while preparing to write On the Road.

 

Also included in the archive is Sayings (1995), a folio of ten color lithographs bound in linen that are based on Mark Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson: A Tale (1894). Ruscha selected phrases written by Twain in a black dialect spoken during the era of slavery. He superimposed the phrases (hand-written in what Ruscha calls his “Boy Scout Utility san serif”) over colorful wood grain patterns, creating a tension that resonates with larger social and racial issues in America today.

 

Ruscha’s creative distillation of popular American culture over the last half century with its layers of typographical code makes him an exciting artist to explore, and, for the Ransom Center, one of the more compelling if not quintessential to acquire.

 

Related content:

In the archive: Ed Ruscha’s “Twentysix Gasoline Stations”

 

Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Artist Ed Ruscha’s archive acquired by Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of artist Edward Ruscha (b. 1937). The materials reveal Ruscha’s creative process and offer a unique perspective of one of the most influential artists working today.

 

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Ruscha moved to Oklahoma City in 1941 and to Los Angeles in 1956 to attend the Chouinard Art Institute. He had his first solo exhibition in 1963 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. In the years since, he has been widely recognized for his paintings, drawings, photographs, and artist’s books.

 

Ruscha is known for art that often manipulates words and phrases in unconventional ways. Ruscha’s art is deeply influenced by his love of books and language, as reflected by his frequent use of palindromes, unusual word pairings and rhyme. He has often combined the cityscape of Los Angeles with vernacular language, and his early work as a graphic artist continues to strongly influence his aesthetic and thematic approach.

 

Ruscha’s archive comprises five personal journals filled with preliminary sketches and notes; materials related to the making of his artist’s book of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (2010); notes, photographs, correspondence and contact sheets relating to the creation and publication of his many other artist’s books, including Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), and Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965); and materials relating to his short films Miracle (1975) and Premium (1971); his portfolios; and several art commissions.

 

Once processed and cataloged, the materials will be accessible in the Ransom Center’s reading room to students, researchers and the public.

 

The purchase of the archive was primarily supported by generous donors, including Michael and Jeanne Klein, the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Foundation, Mark Wawro, and Melanie Gray. The University provided additional support for the acquisition.

 

Ruscha, who continues to live and work in Los Angeles, donated a substantial portion of the archive to the Ransom Center, including a complete set of his artist’s books, print portfolios, 16 mm reels of his films, and a complete set of exhibition posters.

 

A small selection of materials from the archive will be on display in the Ransom Center’s lobby through December 1.

 

Related content:

Oof. Peek inside Ed Ruscha’s archive

In the archive: Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations

 

Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

James Salter: What’s occupying my time lately

By Alicia Dietrich

James Salter, author of A Sport and a Pastime and the acclaimed new novel All That Is, will discuss his life and work with Professor Thomas F. Staley tonight at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center. Salter’s archive resides at the Center. Below, he updates Cultural Compass on what he’s been up to this year.

 

Following a long period of writing, I’ve finally gotten around to some reading.

 

I’ve been reading a book, not yet published, about the artist-heroes in the works of Thomas Mann.  There are so many magnificent German names and cultural references that I decided to read Doctor Faustus in the Vintage edition, or maybe The Magic Mountain. I like the intoxicated feeling of having a great number of things I want to read and the excitement of beginning. A French writer, Jacques Bonnet, in a book called Phantoms on the Bookshelf writes about the pleasure and great burden of owning a huge collection of books, that is to say books made of paper. He likes to surround himself physically with books that over the years have come to fill every available foot of wall space in his house. He likes to be able to see all the books, let his eye fall on them and when reading them feel the pages in his hand. It was in Bonnet’s book that I came across the names of many writers, usually European, I had never heard of, but also some Japanese writers including one named Kafu Nagai who had lived in the United States for a time, wrote about the Floating World, and sounded interesting. I’ve always liked Japanese writers, not only the famous ones but also some little known, such as Masuji Ibuse and Motojiro Kajii.

 

I ordered a book by Kafu Nagai and it arrived, but before I could begin reading it, an obituary appeared in the paper a few days ago for Marcel Reich-Ranicki who had died in Berlin at the age of 93. I am 88, so I felt a kinship. Reich-Ranicki was the pre-eminent German literary critic, born in Poland, Jewish, who miraculously survived the war and devoted his life to the literature of a people he never stopped fearing. He had written a highly praised autobiography, which I learned had been translated. I looked it up on Amazon. It was for sale for $5,700. Instead of pursuing that astounding discovery or misprint, I settled for ordering another of his books instead, Thomas Mann and His Family, six children, several of them becoming writers themselves, two of them committing suicide. I am half way through it, and as soon as I finish must get back to Nagai.

Related Content:

-Read about Salter’s writing advice discovered in his archive

-View a list of books recommended by Salter

-Listen to an audio interview with Salter from March 2007

Image:  Photo of James Salter by Corina Arranz.

James Salter speaks this week at the Ransom Center

By Jane Robbins Mize

Writer James Salter, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, will discuss his life and work with Professor Thomas F. Staley on Thursday, November 7 at 7:00 p.m.

 

Salter is the author of A Sport and a Pastime and the acclaimed new novel All That Is. He received the 1989 PEN/Faulkner Award for his collection Dusk and Other Stories, as well as the 2012 Pen/Malamud Award, which honors excellence in the art of the short story.

 

A book signing of All That Is will follow the lecture.

 

In honor of his appearance, the Ransom Center is giving away a book signed by Salter. Email hrcgiveaway@gmail.com with “Salter” in the subject line by midnight CST on Thursday, November 7 to be entered in a drawing for the book. Attendees will also have the opportunity to win an autographed copy of A Sport and a Pastime and From Gutenberg to Gone with the Wind: Treasures from the Ransom Center.

 

Doors open at 6:20 p.m. for members and at 6:30 p.m. for the public. Complimentary parking for members is available at the University Co-op garage at 23rd and San Antonio streets.

 

This Harry Ransom Lecture is presented by the University Co-op.

 

Related Content:

-Read about Salter’s writing advice discovered in his archive

-View a list of books recommended by Salter

-Listen to an audio interview with Salter from March 2007

 

Image: Cover of James Salter’s novel All That Is.

Ransom Center’s Nuremberg Chronicle on view at the Blanton Museum

By Jane Robbins Mize

A copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle from the Ransom Center’s collections is on view at The University of Texas at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art as part of the exhibition Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475–1540.

 

The exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington with loans from private and public collections, emphasizes the rich and varied works on paper produced in Renaissance Augsburg. “One of the oldest cities in Germany, Augsburg was founded as a Roman military fortress in 15 BCE,” said Catherine Zinser, the Blanton’s curator of exhibitions. “During the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519), Augsburg hosted the Imperial Council and became the center from which the emperor organized all of his print and armor commissions. The combined influences of this important seat of government and Augsburg’s location at the crossroads of international trade manifested a diverse artistic community and a thriving art market.”

 

The Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated world history spanning from the biblical Creation of the world to its publication in 1493, depicts Augsburg as a walled city with many churches. One of Nuremberg’s leading artists, Michel Wolgmut, and his stepson, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, were commissioned to illustrate the publication, which would become the largest book project of its kind in the late fifteenth century. Together, with a workshop of artisans, including a young Albrecht Dürer, Wolgmut and Pleydenwurff created more than 1,800 illustrations from 645 wood blocks. The Nuremberg Chronicle highlights important Western cities, and Augsburg’s prominent, two-page spread speaks to the city’s position as a major center for trade, manufacturing, and publishing.

 

The Ransom Center holds more copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle–one of the earliest printed books and the first with an existing design–than any other library in the country. The Nuremberg Chronicle along with other prints, drawings, and artifacts are on view at the Blanton Museum through January 5.

Jayne Anne Phillips publishes new novel

By Jane Robbins Mize

This October, Jayne Anne Phillips has released her newest novel, Quiet Dell. Described by Stephen King as “a compulsively readable story,” the novel is based on the true and mysterious murder of a widow and her children living in Quiet Dell, West Virginia.

 

Phillips, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, is the author of six novels and short story collections and the recipient of literary prizes including a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. Her novel Lark and Termite was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award.

 

Related Content:
-Listen to Phillips read from Lark and Termite at the Ransom Center.

-Memory as source in Jayne Anne Phillip’s Machine Dreams

-View a list of books recommended by Phillips

William Makepeace Thackeray’s chorus of witches

By Abigail Cain

Although best known for his 1848 novel Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray was not always a writer. After college and a brief stint studying law, he moved to Paris to try his hand as a painter. Gambling and unsuccessful business ventures decimated his inherited fortune, however, and Thackeray was forced to move to London, where he supported his new wife by becoming a journalist.

 

Despite a career change, Thackeray did not forget his artistic background. His collection at the Ransom Center contains a number of sketches, including proofs of illustrations for comic tales and quick drawings in the margins of his letters. The archive also houses a small journal from 1840 that Thackeray might have taken with him on his travels. Within its three-inch-tall covers are pencil sketches of sailors lounging on the deck of a boat, a woman bent over a writing desk, and a child’s cradle. Although some drawings are more finished than others, all display a steady hand and an eye for form.

 

Thackeray also illustrated several of his own novels. The spooky sketch pictured above is one such illustration, taken from his 1859 novel The Virginians: A Tale of the Last Century. As its name suggests, the book was set chiefly in colonial Virginia and follows the family of an English colonel, the title character from an earlier Thackeray novel The History of Henry Esmond. If these witches bear a resemblance to those from Macbeth, it might not be coincidence—in The Virginians, several characters attend a performance of the play.

 

For more sketches by Thackeray, as well as manuscripts of writings, drawings, and letters by and about this English author, explore his archive.

 

Image: Ink sketch by William Makepeace Thackeray.

Norman Mailer’s biographer J. Michael Lennon discusses research for his book “Norman Mailer: A Double Life”

By Abigail Cain

Cover of “Norman Mailer: A Double Life” by J. Michael Lennon.
Cover of “Norman Mailer: A Double Life” by J. Michael Lennon.

In January 1971, J. Michael Lennon wrote a letter of encouragement to Norman Mailer after watching the author get into a raucous televised debate with Gore Vidal. Mailer responded, sparking a lifelong correspondence between the pair.

 

Lennon went on to become Mailer’s personal archivist and authorized biographer, as well as Emeritus Vice President and Emeritus Professor of English at Wilkes University. He has written and edited a number of books about Mailer, including Norman Mailer: Works and Days (2000). His most recent book, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, comes out today. This biography draws on unpublished documents, including Mailer’s letters, as well as Lennon’s personal relationship with the author. In 2009-2010, Lennon visited the Ransom Center on a fellowship funded by the Norman Mailer Endowed Fund to conduct research for the biography. Cultural Compass spoke with Lennon about his new book, his work in the Ransom Center’s archive, what first attracted him to Mailer’s writing, and more.

 

You knew Mailer well before starting work on Norman Mailer: A Double Life. While researching and writing, were you ever surprised by anything you learned about him?

 

I was surprised at the intensity of his depression after his second novel, Barbary Shore, received extremely negative reviews in 1951. He became more depressed (but not clinically) than I had previously thought and actually investigated the possibility of working in a prison or becoming a lawyer. The other things that surprised me were the extent of his many passionate love affairs and the number of young writers, hundreds of them, with whom he corresponded, and encouraged, something that went on from the 1950s until his death in 2007.

 

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

 

I hope readers will see how immersed Mailer was in the great events and issues of the latter half of the twentieth century and the first years of the next one. He saw and wrote about World War II, the Cold War and the espionage and counter-espionage that accompanied it, the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements, technology and the environmental movement, and the early space exploration effort. Mailer not only wrote about these things, he also debated them publicly on just about every major talk show in existence. He is the most important public intellectual from the literary world in my lifetime. He was also a terrific biographer and wrote memorable biographical books and essays on a score of iconic figures, from Marilyn Monroe and Madonna to JFK, Muhammad Ali, and Hemingway. Also some infamous individuals—Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Hitler. And Jesus Christ, in his 1997 novel, The Gospel According to the Son.

 

What first drew you to Norman Mailer as an author?

 

His daring, his edgy style, his exploration of his identity, and his self-awareness.

 

The Mailer archive is the largest single-author collection at the Ransom Center. Have you been through every box? How do you organize and prioritize your work in the archive?

 

Yes, I think I have handled every piece of paper in it. Building on the pioneering work of Robert F. Lucid, my mentor, my wife and I organized Mailer’s papers and then helped the Ransom Center’s staff create the Mailer finding aid. During my several visits to the Center, I used the finding aid to organize my request list so that I could spend my time reading and note-taking. The system devised by Steve Mielke and his team made my research efforts considerably easier. I am indebted to the Ransom Center for expert and thoughtful help over the past eight years.