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Fellows Find: Puzzling over composite prints by Henry Peach Robinson

By Emily Talbot

Emily Talbot, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, received a dissertation fellowship to study nineteenth-century composite photographs by Henry Peach Robinson and his contemporaries in England and France. This research forms part of a larger project that considers the integration of photographic technologies and aesthetic standards into the production of works of art in other media. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

 

With the support of a Dissertation Fellowship at the Harry Ransom Center, I spent a month studying photographs, drawings, and other ephemera related to nineteenth-century British photographer Henry Peach Robinson (1830–1901). My dissertation project at the University of Michigan concerns relationships between photography and other media in the nineteenth century, focusing particularly on “hybrid” practices, such as painters who utilized photographic technologies or photographers who doctored their images with paint or pencil.

 

Robinson is a perfect case study for my project as he was one of the first and most famous practitioners of “composite photography,” an early form of photomontage that involved printing multiple negatives on the same sheet of paper. Composite prints are ambitious works of art that were intended to rival painting in their subject matter and mode of execution. Typically, Robinson would design his compositions in pencil or watercolor, later photographing each figure and landscape element separately before combining them into a single image in the darkroom.

 

The Helmut and Alison Gernsheim collection of photography at the Ransom Center is one of three major repositories of work by Henry Peach Robinson (the other two being George Eastman House in Rochester, New York and the National Media Museum in Bradford, England). However, because Helmut Gernsheim felt that it was important to understand a photographer’s artistic development in its entirety—an idea he notes in correspondence with Robinson’s granddaughter—the Gernsheims collected Robinson’s prints, drawings, and paintings in addition to the photographs for which he is best known. During my residency at the Ransom Center, I was particularly keen to study several rare photographic collages that Robinson made as preliminary studies for his composite prints. These half-painted, half-photographic compositions reveal Robinson’s artistic process to be a fascinating negotiation of painting and photography, imagination, and visible reality.

 

In my attempts to understand how Robinson conceived and created his pictures, I called upon the expertise of Barbara Brown, Head of Photograph Conservation at the Ransom Center. Together we examined 15 combination photographs, identifying and speculating about instances of handwork on the negatives as a result of painting on or masking over parts of the image before printing. During this study session I gained further appreciation for the complexity of Robinson’s technique. By making changes directly on his negatives, he left very little physical evidence of this manipulation on the prints themselves. Without being able to consult the negatives, the viewer must often guess how the image was made.

 

Rather than being an impediment to my research, this knowledge helps me to understand why many nineteenth-century art critics were so disapproving of composite printing. Landscape photographer Alfred Wall even described Robinson’s works as “ingenious fraud” and “contemptible shams.” Composite pictures trick the eye—the critic’s main tool of expertise—casting doubt on the reliability of photographic images and undermining the role of the critic altogether. As I move forward with my research, I intend to explore further this fraught relationship between seeing and making that is exemplified by the rich collections of nineteenth-century photography at the Harry Ransom Center.

 

Enter to win a copy of Henry Peach Robinson: Victorian Photographer by tweeting a link to this post and tagging @ransomcenter. Not on Twitter? Email hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Robinson” in the subject line. By entering via email, you are also opting-in to receive the Ransom Center’s monthly email newsletter. All tweets and emails must be sent by Monday, August 11, at midnight CST. A winner will be drawn and notified on Tuesday, August 12.

 

Image: Henry Peach Robinson, Study for  A Holiday in the Wood, salted paper print with applied graphite and watercolor, May 1860. 

New biography sheds light on life and work of Dashiell Hammett

By Jane Robbins Mize

Sally Cline, a British award-winning biographer and short story writer, recently published the biography Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery (Arcade). She received a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies from the Harry Ransom Center in 2003-2004, which supported her work in the Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman collections. Below, Cline answers questions about her new Hammett biography.

 

You have previously conducted research on both Dashiell Hammett and his lifelong companion, Lillian Hellman. What led to you revisit the topic and ultimately to write a biography of Hammett?

Publishers were more interested in having separate smaller biographies about Hammett and Hellman than the big joint biography I had envisaged. The American publishing firm Arcade commissioned a compact biography of Hammett, and that is what I wrote. I have, of course, a great deal more research material left on Hellman as an individual and Hellman in relation to Hammett, so I plan to also write a short study of Hellman using the theme of memories and myths.

 

 

What aspects of Hammett’s character and work are of special interest?

His writing, of course, and in particular the way in which he transformed and subverted the detective novel. Through his moral vision expressed in every book he wrote, he effectively elevated the genre of mystery writing into the category of literature.

 

His near-nihilistic philosophy (especially his root idea that the world is ruled by meaningless blind chance), which becomes the thematic context to all his work and much of his behavior.

 

Relevant to this interest is my choice of the anecdote about Flitcraft (in The Maltese Falcon), which stands out as his most memorable piece of nonfiction prose. Ironically, despite the fact the anecdote was key to the novel’s theme, when John Huston made the most famous of the several films about the Falcon, he left it out. Hammett would have appreciated the irony.

 

I am interested in another irony whereby a writer whose creed is moral ambiguity and random results chooses to write crime novels that are generally predicated on linear clues and an orderly progression of facts.

 

I am interested in his relationship to other men and to women. He always preferred male company but was terrified of being thought homosexual. Yet, apart from his affectionate and initially sexually successful relationship with his wife Josie, he did not have a genuinely equal sexual, emotional, and interdependent relationship with any other woman, not even Lillian Hellman. He coped sexually by using prostitutes and was sometimes violent towards women, especially when drunk.

 

Two more things fascinate me. One is his series of debilitating illnesses that made him virtually an invalid in an era when masculine identity was predicated upon robust health. Real Men were not sick!

 

The other part that intrigues me, as it has intrigued his many other biographers, is his long literary silence.

 

What I felt was important was not the myth that he stopped writing—indeed as his daughter Jo testified, he never stopped writing; he merely stopped finishing. But the sad fact is that despite the constant agonized writing, he never again published a full novel after The Thin Man.

 

 

How did the Ransom Center’s archives serve you in your research process? Did they provide any new insights and/or understandings of Hammett?

The Center’s archives provided an enormous amount of information, which along with Hammett’s own family helped answer many of my most significant questions. Two people at the Ransom Center in particular must be singled out: Margi Tenney and Pat Fox. I have so far held four or five fellowships at the Ransom Center over a great many years, and in every case these two women have been unfailingly helpful, flexible, kind, efficient, and brilliant in making my work flow and focus.

 

Image: Cover of Sally Cline’s Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery.

Fellows Find: Samuel Beckett’s radio plays

By Pim Verhulst

Pim Verhulst of the University of Antwerp visited the Ransom Center to work with the Samuel Beckett papers, in particular the radio plays and related correspondence. His research, funded by a dissertation fellowship, seeks to bring together all the existing draft versions in a digital space and study the writing process. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 20142015.

 

In 2013 the Harry Ransom Center awarded me a dissertation fellowship for a research project on the radio plays of the Irish-French author and Nobel Prize Winner (1969) Samuel Beckett. My dissertation is part of the recently launched Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. Its goal is to reunite all extant draft material of Beckett’s bilingual work, scattered over a dozen libraries all around the world, in an interactive digital environment. Each of its 27 online modules is supplemented with a book that reconstructs the writing process of the highlighted texts on the basis of their available writing traces, as well as letters and even Beckett’s personal library. My dissertation covers Beckett’s six radio plays: All That Fall, Embers, Pochade radiophonique, Words and Music, Esquisse radiophonique, and Cascando. They were written in English and French between 1956 and 1962 and translated by the author himself around the same time.

 

My week’s stay at the Ransom Center came at the end of a three-year research period, during which I visited all the major European research institutions and libraries preserving Beckett material. The Ransom Center was my last stop, and while most pieces of the puzzle were already in place, a few crucial gaps remained. The collection includes draft material for Beckett’s first two radio plays, All That Fall and Embers, as well as many important letter collections from close friends. My trip to the Ransom Center followed a short research stay at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where it was unusually hot and damp for my Northern European temperament. The cold front causing ice storms in Houston and Dallas had made the December weather in Austin resemble more closely what I was used to in Belgium, so I felt immediately at home when I arrived. To warm myself a little, I decided to turn to Embers first. The typescript of the French version (Cendres) is very interesting because it shows just how intensely Beckett reworked the translation made by his friend, the French writer Robert Pinget. In three kinds of writing material—grey pencil, blue ink, and red ballpoint—you can see him trying out five or six variants of a phrase, the differences being ever so slight. This great attention to detail was all the more impressive because the Center allowed me to consult the original documents, which even showed the traces of previous erased alternative, a rare luxury that only archives offer.

 

The English typescript of the radio play comes late in the writing process and does not show many alterations. One peculiar aspect of the typescript is its lack of a title. From my earlier research on the text, I knew that Beckett originally planned to call it “Ebb,” as it takes place by the seaside. Why it was changed to Embers is revealed by his letters to Ethna McCarthy, the wife of one of his best friends. The news of her terminal illness brought to Beckett’s mind an image of her “crouching all day over the fire in the front room” when he last saw Ethna in Dublin, a vivid depiction that recurs in some of his other letters to mutual friends. Beckett sent her his new radio script with the message: “there are bits that will murmur to you.” Embers must have been one of the last—if not the last—text that Ethna read during her life. Beckett’s change of title reflects these personal circumstances, as the cycle of ebb and flow makes way for the entropic decline of coals dying down. It is a beautiful though painful reminder of how art tries to staunch the wounds of life, even in the face of death.

 

The vaudevillian setup of All That Fall promised lighter entertainment, as fat Maddy Rooney painstakingly makes her way to the nearest train station. Fellow travelers offer a ride but they all break down, leading to ribald sitcom. She finally meets her blind husband on the platform and leads him home, but it soon becomes clear just how unfit a guide she is. The script’s closing pages become ever more grim, as tensions between Maddy and Dan rise and the weather takes a turn for the worse. The gorgeous manuscript notebook that holds the first version of the radio play shows how Beckett wrote the text in fits and starts, shuffling along the dreary road of composition much like his characters, switching between writing tools and colors as if to liven things up. When he got to the second, more gloomy part of the script—appropriately written in black ink—he returned to the first page of the notebook and changed the title from “Lovely Day for the Races” to All That Fall. The new title refers to Psalm 145.14: “The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” In Beckett’s radio play, there is no sign of a merciful God. Ironically, as I approached the end of the manuscript, Ransom Center staff members were busy putting up Christmas decorations. As everyone was getting ready for the holiday season, it was time for me to go home. Still glowing with the kindness of Elizabeth Garver, Bridget Gayle-Ground, and their colleagues, and the excitement of a week’s archival exploration, I tried not to think of All That Fall as my flight sped across the Atlantic.

Image: Photograph of Samuel Beckett taken by a street photographer outside Burlington House in Piccadily, ca. 1954.

 

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Fellows Find: Determining audience taste in eighteenth-century English theater

By Diana Solomon

Diana Solomon, associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University, worked with the Ransom Center’s collections of eighteenth-century English playbills and promptbooks. Jointly supported by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and the British Studies Fellowship, her research will be utilized in her current book project on comedy and repetition in eighteenth-century English theater. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

In the winter of 2014 I had the good fortune of spending three months at the Harry Ransom Center. My current book project, Comedy and Repetition in Eighteenth-Century English Theatre, asks why eighteenth-century theater audiences wanted to see the same plays, characters, plots, and comic devices again and again. It is essential first to pin down what elements they did wish to revisit, which requires substantial archival research. Prior studies of comic taste in eighteenth-century England have tended to focus on canonical novels or on non-mainstream genres. But looking broadly at dramatic trends tells a different story, and that story can be traced through the Ransom Center’s rich holdings in eighteenth-century English theater.

 

Many printed playtexts survive, but since their eighteenth-century readers may or may not have seen them in performance, it can be tricky to determine what material from plays was actually performed onstage. One approach to answering this question is to examine surviving promptbooks—unique print copies of the play used by the theater prompter to delineate textual omissions and stage directions. The Ransom Center possesses 11 such promptbooks, and these indicate not only what sections of the texts were staged, but also how performances of plays changed over time.

 

One example concerns the promptbook to Thomas Southerne’s 1696 play, Oroonoko. The play is based on Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel about an African king, Oroonoko, who was tricked into slavery by British slave-traders; the novel ends tragically with his murder by dismemberment. When adapting it for the stage, Southerne changed details of the tragedy (for example, Oroonoko’s death becomes a suicide) and added a comic plot featuring two sisters husband-hunting in the New World. His play begins with the two sisters discussing why they abandoned their lives in England for America. That these are the first two characters who appear onstage makes them sympathetic to the audience. Charlotte and Lucy discuss the double standard of aging, male repulsion to female familiarity, and the name-calling and mimicry that led them ultimately to leave England. But in the promptbook, which was first used during a 1730s play revival and then further annotated for planned revivals in 1747 and 1759, the first scene is gutted. The remaining lines indicate the sisters’ lost hope of marrying Londoners but eliminate the protofeminist discussion of how this state of affairs came to be. There are also excisions from Oroonoko’s scenes, but the major ones (consisting of 15 or more lines) don’t appear until Act 3, by which time his character and mistreatment by the British have been well established.  While subsequent editions retain the excised passages, those who solely attended performances never saw this comic scene. The prompter’s copy of Oroonoko suggests that the prompter cut these scenes from his sense of audience taste in comedy. Parts of the original play may have seemed too challenging for later audiences, suggesting that they may have been less receptive to protofeminism.

 

It is possible, from the 11 prompter’s copies, to deduce that earlier, more radical comedy remained in play publications but was considered too radical or challenging for mid-eighteenth-century theater audiences. These Ransom Center’s holdings are invaluable for their help in tracing audience taste throughout the century.

 

Image: Pages 2 and 3 in the promptbook of Thomas Southerne’s play Oroonoko.

 

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Fellow discusses work in wartime theater collection