In early September, David Shields and Shane Salerno published Salinger, an oral biography of the well-known author of The Catcher in the Rye and infamous recluse, J. D. Salinger. Along with the publication, Salerno released an accompanying documentary film of the same title that features interviews, footage, and photographs related to Salinger’s life and work. The documentary will air on PBS as part of the American Masters series on this Tuesday, January 21.
In addition to the commentary of his family, friends, and acquaintances, the written biography contains photos and personal documents, including letters to and from Salinger himself. A collection of Salinger’s manuscripts, galleys, page proofs, and correspondence resides at the Ransom Center, including manuscripts of unpublished stories and 38 letters from Salinger to Elizabeth Murray. The book references some of this correspondence, which lasted for nearly three decades.
Shields and Salerno also reveal Salinger’s unpublished work, which will be published intermittently in the coming years. Ultimately, Salinger, both biography and documentary,provides an opportunity for the public to revisit and re-evaluate the author’s hidden life and widely read work.
Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of J. M. Coetzee’s 1981 novel Waiting for the Barbarians is the setting—an imaginary empire, one lacking a specified place and time. Yet, when Coetzee penned the first draft of the novel, it was set in Cape Town, South Africa.
David Attwell, a Professor of English at the University of York in the U.K., provides an in-depth look at the development of Coetzee’s third novel. He visited the Ransom Center this year to explore Coetzee’s archive.
Coetzee, who was born in Cape Town and graduated from the University of Cape Town, enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin in 1965 to pursue his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages.
“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” says Norma Desmond in the famous end scene of Sunset Boulevard. Gloria Swanson, the actress who portrayed Desmond, is ready, as well. Bowdoin Professor Tricia Welsch received fellowships, which were funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, to conduct research in the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection. The University Press of Mississippi recently published Welsch’s book, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up. Below, Welsch writes on her time at the Ransom Center.
When I took an exploratory trip to the Ransom Center to see if there was enough material to support a biography of Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), I was floored by the breadth and depth of the collection as well as the exceptional helpfulness and insightfulness of the staff. The Center’s holdings cover Swanson’s personal and professional life, from the first pictures she made in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin in Chicago through her movie stardom and her work in theater, television, radio, publishing, fashion, politics, and health activism. She lived in New York, California, Rome, London, and Paris. She traveled widely, and corresponded with everyone from Carol Burnett and Noel Coward to Eleanor Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. I felt like I hit the biographer’s jackpot every day.
Over the months I spent at the Ransom Center, I saw the records of a fully lived life. I examined Swanson’s grade school report cards, read the fan mail she received, pored over seven decades’ worth of business correspondence, and looked at thousands of photographs. Swanson’s contract specified that she was to receive a complete set of film stills from each of her pictures, and they provide a valuable record of many films considered lost today. Swanson also had a vibrant love life, and there are amazing love letters from her six husbands and her many lovers—including hourly telegrams sent by an enraptured Herbert Marshall. There is even one surviving love note from her producing partner Joe Kennedy, who left few records of his private affair and preferred that his assistants refer to Swanson in code even in their business papers.
Swanson considered writing her autobiography for decades and made some wire recordings of her memories in the 1950s, which the Ransom Center converted to digital format. Hearing Swanson talk about her life in her low, thrilling voice—imperious, wry, yearning, and philosophical by turns—was a special pleasure.
I particularly enjoyed one recording where she and her long-time friend actress Lois Wilson reminisced about their early Hollywood escapades—in particular, Swanson’s reputation for scandal: “If I was in a room fully clothed for five minutes with some men, mayhem! Lois could walk out of a room with a dozen men in a black chiffon nightgown after two hours and they’d say, ‘Oh, somebody must be ill in there. She’s taking care of them.’” The peals of laughter throughout their conversation were infectious.
I also heard Swanson’s voice in her extensive correspondence, in the many drafts she prepared of her memoirs, in published interviews, in her TV talk show appearances, and—unexpectedly—in a series of dispatches she wrote for the United Press from Europe in the mid-1950s. These appeared as twice-weekly syndicated newspaper columns. In them she wrote about whatever grabbed her: Roman fireworks and French perfume manufacturing, bullfighting, her visit to a camp for Iron Curtain refuges, Princess Grace’s wedding in Monaco. Swanson called her 117 articles “the hardest and most disciplined work” she ever did. They chronicle the mid-life adventures of a fascinating woman who was prepared to be fascinated by every new experience.
Swanson called herself a “mental vampire” because she had a voracious appetite for learning of all kinds, and the Swanson collection affirms that. It is the ideal archive.
Although best known for her role as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gloria Swanson was a legendary actress even before then. She starred in countless silent films, working with celebrities Cecil DeMille and Charlie Chaplin. Vivacious and enigmatic, Swanson was known for her extravagant clothing, spending, and love life.
In his new biography Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer utilized the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection, which includes personal correspondence, professional contracts, and ephemera.
Swanson was not known for being revelatory or reflective, and an interesting quotation from one of Swanson’s 1943 diary entries, held in the Ransom Center’s collection, stands out in Shearer’s book. She writes, “God’s wisdom finds no solace, no satisfaction in sin, since God has sentenced sinners to suffer.” This introspective quote is at a discord with her usual attitude of rarely expressing remorse, whether for her inveterate spending and debts or the many hearts she broke.
Swanson also worked hard to gloss over anything negative and to cultivate an image of perpetual stardom. Her dramatic and charismatic persona was always on display, drawing men and women alike to her. “Swanson was drenched in her concept of her own allure and femininity,” said Shearer. Swanson’s carefully crafted autobiography Swanson on Swanson reflects this tendency to conceal the negative aspects of her life and showcase her greatness, but holdings such as this diary entry help paint a portrait of Swanson that goes beyond Norma Desmond and Swanson on Swanson.
In 1975, photographer Ted Spagna (1943–1989) began his career-defining project that would revolutionize the artistic interpretation and even scientific understanding of sleep. Using a time-lapse camera, Spagna photographed a variety of sleeping subjects for an entire night. The results, now known as “sleep portraiture,” provided a unique bird’s eye perspective of his subjects’ movements, patterns, and interactions. Today, a collection of Spagna’s photographs and papers resides at the Ransom Center.
In 2009, Ron Eldridge and Delia Bonfilio, nephew and goddaughter of Spagna, formed the Ted Spagna Project. Aspiring to “awaken his work and carry it on,” Eldridge and Bonfilio launched a variety of programs highlighting Spagna and his work, including the recently published collection of his photographs titled SLEEP.
Rizzoli Publishing describes SLEEP as “an intimate, voyeuristic exploration into the private landscape of the unconscious from the Muybridge of sleep.” The full-color coffee-table book features Spagna’s photographs of children, adults, couples, and families exposed in the private act of sleeping. With text by psychiatrist Allan Hobson and additional photographs by Mary Ellen Mark, SLEEP has revived Spagna’s project alongside current information and innovation.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas shook America’s understanding of trust, security, and rational behavior. In the five decades following, a multitude of historians and writers have been moved to study the event, many with particular interest in the assassin himself, Lee Harvey Oswald.
In 1995, Norman Mailer released Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, an 828-page biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Written three decades after the assassination of President Kennedy, Mailer’s account of the man and the events offers a unique, in-depth study of Oswald’s relationships and character with specific focus on his time in the Soviet Union.
Born in New Orleans in 1939, Oswald spent his childhood in Dallas, Fort Worth, and New York City before joining the United States Marine Corps at 17. Throughout his life, Oswald was reprimanded for temperamental and reckless behavior, traits that repeatedly manifested themselves in spontaneous and rash decisions. Three years after enlisting, Oswald abandoned the Marine Corps and—having developed an increasing interest in Socialism—moved to the Soviet Union, where he expressed his desire to renounce his United States citizenship. There he met Marina Prusakova. They married within six weeks of meeting and had their first child within a year. After three years in the Soviet Union, Oswald returned to the United States.
Mailer’s archive, which resides at the Ransom Center, contains the author’s preliminary research for Oswald’s Tale—his 28th book—as well as drafts of the manuscript throughout the publishing process. Mailer’s notes include handwritten annotations, Russian vocabulary flashcards, and interview transcripts with a variety of Oswald’s acquaintances, including Marina Pursakova herself.
One early note, scrawled sometime between 1992 and 1993, reads, “It will be noted that this book is called a mystery… Let me propose that a mystery… creates a form of its own between fiction and non-fiction.” He asserts that “the author did his best to make up no dialogue,” and to “attribute no private motives to his real characters.” “Still,” he writes, “it is a most peculiar form of non-fiction since it requests the reader’s collaboration.”
Oswald’s Tale provides the reader with an in-depth perspective of the events, motivations, and emotions that ultimately drove Oswald to murder. The author undoubtedly makes his own speculations about the subject’s character, but his depiction of the facts encourages the reader to develop their own understanding of Oswald. Thus, Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale—and the collection of associated interviews, notes, and manuscripts—exists as an interactive reflection on the unforgettable tragedy of November 22, 1963.
Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.
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.
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.”
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.
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.