Photographer Abelardo Morell, whose work is featured in the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition, delivers the Amon Carter lecture on Thursday, March 26, at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center.
Morell’s work has been collected and shown at institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Five prints from Morell’s series Alice in Wonderland are on view in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Morell says of this series, “When I began to make photographs illustrating this book by Lewis Carroll I had in mind that books themselves should form the architecture and landscape where the story takes place.”
The program is free and open to the public, but donations are welcome. Seating is first-come, first-served, and doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Students at The University of Texas have the opportunity to enhance their studies with the Ransom Center’s collections. Andrea Gustavson, PhD candidate in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, designed an entire class around the Ransom Center’s collections, and she writes about how the primary source materials enhanced the learning experience for her undergraduate students.
On Tuesday, March 10, at 4p.m., Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator of Photography, speaks about the photography of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—better known to the world as Lewis Carroll. Flukinger will discuss Dodgson’s pursuit of photography and his recognition as one of the most accomplished amateur photographers of the Victorian Era. The program, presented in conjunction with the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is free and open to the public. Seating is first-come, first-served, and doors open at 3:30 p.m.
In July of 1865, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson returned home from a visit to the family of Rev. Conyngham Ellis, the Rector of Cranbourne. In a letter quickly posted to the eldest Ellis daughter, Dymphna, Dodgson asked for help with a bit of unfinished business. He wrote,
Of course I left something behind—always do: this time it was my album of photographs (and autographs). And we also forgot to get your names written in it. So will you please turn 2 or 3 pages on after ‘Mary Millais,’ and then sign your name in the same place in the page as she did, only about half an inch lower down, and then get Mary, Bertha, and Kate to do the same thing in the 3 following pages. And then will you send it by train to Croft Rectory, Darlington. Thank you—much obliged.
Dymphna followed Dodgson’s instructions and returned the album, which Dodgson titled Photographs Vol. III. One hundred and fifty years later, it is one of five Dodgson albums held in the photography collection at the Harry Ransom Center.
Dodgson carried his albums with him on visits to friends and family, using them not only to show off his photographic work, but also to help him persuade parents and their children to pose for him. The letter to Dymphna Ellis reveals Dodgson’s method of collecting signatures on blank leaves of albums when he made the portraits. He then packed away the albums and negatives and returned to his darkroom to make the albumen prints, pasting them to the appropriate album pages. Photographs Vol. III contains more than a dozen pages bearing a signature but no mounted photograph, suggesting that the photographer did not always secure a final portrait that met his expectations.
Dodgson’s albums offer crucial information about his working process but also provide a tangible record of his artistry. Like his diaries, they also reinforce the record of his travels and his interactions with numerous acquaintances throughout Victorian Britain. And, perhaps most critically, they subtly provide us with a deeper and more richly nuanced portrait of the man himself.
The exhibition Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard opens March 7 at The University of Texas at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art. The exhibition features more than 35 photographs exclusively drawn from the Ransom Center’s photography collection and archives of writers from Meatyard’s intellectual circle. The exhibition is organized by Jessica S. McDonald, the Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography at the Harry Ransom Center. The exhibition will be on view through June 21.
Studying the creative process of artists and writers, as well as tracing collaborations and intersections between them, is at the core of research at the Harry Ransom Center. In March 2015, the Ransom Center will highlight the intersection of photography and poetry in its collections, while celebrating creative collaboration across campus, in an exhibition organized with the Blanton Museum of Art. Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard will feature approximately 35 photographs exclusively drawn from the Ransom Center’s photography collection and archives of writers in Meatyard’s intellectual network.
In the late 1950s, Meatyard (1925–1972) began staging elaborate visual dramas enacted by his wife, children, and close friends, and experimenting with multiple exposure, blur, and abstraction to imbue his images with an ambiguous, dreamlike quality. The abandoned farmhouses and densely wooded forests of rural Kentucky served as sets for Meatyard’s symbolic scenes, turning otherwise ordinary family snapshots into unsettling vignettes of life in a deteriorating South. Meatyard called these photographs “Romances,” adopting the definition American satirist Ambrose Bierce provided in his Devil’s Dictionary: “Fiction that owes no allegiance to the God of Things as They Are.”
Groundbreaking in their time and challenging even today, Meatyard’s photographic fictions were embraced by his circle of writers and artists in Lexington, Kentucky. Guy Davenport (1927–2005), a close friend and neighbor, was routinely one of the first to examine Meatyard’s new work and used one of his photographs on the cover of Flowers & Leaves, Davenport’s 1966 long poem. Just after Davenport viewed the last of Meatyard’s photographs in 1972, he wrote to literary scholar Hugh Kenner of the “wildly strange pictures” he had seen. The exhibition will present an intriguing selection of Meatyard’s “Romances” made between 1958 and 1970, including rare variants of published images.
While Meatyard’s “Romances” are familiar to those who study and appreciate photography, his evocative portraits of writers are less well known. Often incorporating the spectral blur and unconventional angles of his primary work, they served as unconventional authors’ portraits for book jackets and promotional materials. Prints were exchanged among Meatyard’s sitters, and many entered the Ransom Center’s collections with their archives. A group of these portraits will be assembled in Wildly Strange: The Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard to highlight the relationships both between these creative figures in Lexington and across the collections at the Ransom Center.
As the Ransom Center continually seeks innovative ways to share its collections, this collaboration with the Blanton Museum of Art will introduce its photography holdings to a new audience and will demonstrate the collective strength of the cultural institutions across The University of Texas at Austin campus.
Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Diana has a Bachelor of Arts in Conservation from Bogotá, Colombia and she specialized in Photograph conservation in Mexico City, Mexico. She has worked in private workshops and labs and came to the Ransom Center following her work at the Frida Kahlo Museum and the National School for Conservation (ENCRyM) both in Mexico City.
What do you like best about your job?
I like the fact that we can actually touch the objects and handle them carefully but with confidence. Usually when you go to a museum, you are not allowed to touch anything, you are only allowed to see and be very careful. In conservation, while performing a treatment, it is usually necessary to handle the objects to take care of them. This allow us to better understand the materiality of the object.
What is your favorite item that has come through your office?
I was very lucky when I first arrived because the “First Photograph” was coming back from an exhibition in Germany. The case needed some maintenance after the exhibition, so it was brought to us at the Photograph Conservation Lab, and I had the chance to view the photograph outside of its case and look at it closely to check its condition. It was amazing.
What was your most challenging project?
In Mexico City, I worked on a huge collage with photographs from the end of the nineteenth century. It was a commemoration of Mexico’s independence, with portraits of independence heroes as well as politicians and diplomats of the time. It measures approximately 8 x 10 feet and has more than 700 photographs. It had several structural problems that needed attention and became very complicated due to the size and the mixture of materials in the collage, and it was a lot of work to treat each photograph, one by one. Here at the Ransom Center, I worked on very tightly rolled panoramas that needed to be flattened for the World War I exhibition. The work was delicate and complicated, especially because the paper was brittle and had some tears that needed mending.
What is the most useful tool in your profession?
For everyday use, the microscope and the spatula are the most helpful tools for identification and treatment of photographs. Equipment used to perform scientific analysis is also very useful and helps us to better understand the chemical composition of the objects and works of art we work with. It is very important for us to first identify the photographic technique of every print or negative that comes to the lab before performing any treatment, as this determines how fragile a photograph might be. For example, some photographs are more sensitive to light, while others are more sensitive to handling. Identifying photographic techniques also allows us to choose appropriate conservation treatments.
Does your Spanish proficiency aid you in your work?
Sometimes, especially because of Texas’s strong connection with Latin American culture. Many archives are from native Spanish speakers, and others have Spanish inscriptions. My language skills help me understand some details about the objects, and are sometimes helpful when interacting with patrons interested in the Ransom Center’s collections.
What drew you to photo conservation?
My father, who was a photographer and filmmaker, first influenced me. I used to see him filming and taking pictures, and then I played with his cameras. When I started in conservation, I liked working with paper, so my first job was as a paper conservator in an archive where photographs started to be more and more common. I was asked to survey a new collection that had an important number of photographic materials, and at that moment I realized I did not really know how to talk about the materiality of photographs or their decay with time. I realized that I didn’t know much, but I wanted to. That curiosity and my father’s influence were what helped me decide to work in this field.
You worked in the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City. What did you like most about working there?
It was great to learn about her as an artist, but also as a person by seeing her pictures. Her father was a renowned photographer, so there is a large collection of family photographs, together with images of her in bed after one of several operations, with an apparatus installed in the bed that held a canvas and allowed her to paint while recovering. Others show the work in progress of some of her most important paintings. There are also photographs with or from other artists and friends of Frida such as Nickolas Muray and Diego Rivera. These pictures show an intimate part of her life that nobody had seen before and have an incredible value for researchers and scholars.
When Frida died, Diego locked up her personal effects and other belongings, including unfinished paintings, in bathrooms at the Blue House that had been converted into storerooms. Diego entrusted the archive to his friend Dolores Olmedo, with the instruction to keep it locked until 15 years after his death, but Dolores decided to keep it locked until after her own death. So 50 years passed before the storage rooms were opened and the museum was able to process Frida’s personal archive and establish conservation needs and exhibitions. I feel very fortunate to have contributed to the preservation of her archive.
There’s a Frida Kahlo portrait at the Ransom Center.
It’s remarkable that we have it here. The painting is one of her most important pieces. Actually, I had the chance to courier it back to the Ransom Center. It was featured in an exhibition that highlighted surreal artists, and I had the chance to return it to the museum when the exhibition ended. I think it’s another favorite from the collections for me.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I like to read and dance a lot, go to the gym and exercise, go out with friends, and go to the movies.
What type of dancing do you do?
Everything! If it is informal, I like to salsa and merengue or dance to other Latin music, but I used to do contemporary dance and ballet.
What was the last movie you saw?
I saw Wish I Was Here with Zach Braff.
What is your favorite place in Austin to spend your day off?
I like so many places in Austin: around the lake, downtown. Areas surroundings Austin, like Enchanted Rock, are beautiful, and Barton Springs, of course, in the summer.
Do you have a favorite contemporary photographer or a favorite gallery in Austin?
I like very much the work of the photographer Alec Soth. The Ransom Center organized a pop-up show recently; I especially like his “Paris/Minesota” project. On the subject of galleries, I like The Contemporary Austin.
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The Ransom Center holds the archive of American photojournalist and author David Douglas Duncan, including his images of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. In honor of Veterans Day, Ransom Center Research Curator of Photography Roy Flukinger asked Duncan about photography, being a Marine, his experiences as a combat photographer, and his prediction about the next generation of war photographers. Below are Duncan’s responses, submitted in writing from his home in France.
So many of today’s photojournalists are civilians with media credentials. In contrast, during many of the conflicts that you covered, you were a Marine, first on active duty and then as a veteran, working as a combat photographer. How would you characterize the critical difference this has made in your photography and in working with military personnel?
As a Marine I always worked alone, my notes for every shot plugged into my memory—never a notebook. All of the guys around me were Marines, and, as we all knew, if one got zapped, other vertical guys would somehow get you out—to be patched up or shipped home.
Today, much of the memorable coverage has been shot by amateurs with cell phones, not Washington/Army “implanted” pros—think Abu Gharib.
You wrote in This Is War! that “There is neither climax nor conclusion to this book.” And you repeated the phrase in the foreword to your Vietnam book, War Without Heroes. Having now completed decades of covering numerous conflicts throughout the globe, would you say that the same statement is appropriate to describing all wars and that future combat photographers will also find it impossible to tell the whole story?
There is no “whole story” in combat photography—only fragments of each moment that sometimes/often seems like eternity… and in that jungle, on that strip of obscene discolored far-from-home sand, the Marine at your shoulder is your only relative in that world—unlike no other but still precious and even long-loved by those who survived to come home to the world where almost every combat Marine is often a stranger even among his own family and friends… and then, confined to a veteran’s bed where the nights were often worse than that sandy beach or sodden jungle fox-hole where it was still possible to dream of everything, including tomorrow.
The men who fought the battles, who lived and died, who shared the service alongside you are clearly more than just the subjects of your camera. When we hung your exhibition and looked through your books you frequently recalled their names and shared many anecdotes about them. And the ones I met certainly remembered you. Is this a special relationship that is shared between veterans, that goes beyond just the basic reportorial dimensions of your picture stories?
One would doubt that other lives are so enriched as those of the Marines who were my combat friends…. yet, say among many lifelong career pros, the Formula One race drivers where everything can explode in fractions of a second… where they are wheel-to-wheel at 300 kilometers-an-hour and sure of the other driver’s professionalism and nerves under constant lethal pressure… yes, there must be other lives similar where the risks and lifelong friendships could well be similar to those of veteran Marines.
You revolutionized your field with the adoption of Nikon lenses and later technological advances.Have the digital and electronic changes we have witnessed in the last generation of photojournalism made it easier or harder to tell the story of war correctly and fully?
Digital cameras/smart phones even iPads, as seen everywhere, among tourists, children, hobbling ancients, workmen everywhere reporting back to control offices somewhere faraway—everybody is a photographer today. No sweat—and many among that digital-loaded horde are very, very good photographers, having fun—their generation/taking it for granted and surely filling souvenir books at home sometimes/possibly often holding masterpieces.
You have already provided us with a lifetime of words and photographs on the subject. Are there other aspects of the story of war that you might wish to see the next generation of combat photographers address more completely on future Veterans Days?
The next generation of war photographers? ……drones!
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.
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.
At the recent Texas Conference on Digital Libraries—held last week at The University of Texas at Austin—Ransom Center graduate interns Jordan Mitchell and Emily Roehl and Research Associate Chelsea Weathers delivered a presentation about the Ransom Center’s Fred Fehl dance collection. The poster illustrates the steps of the digitization process, from creating metadata to scanning to image processing.
Between 1940 and 1985, New York-based stage photographer Fred Fehl documented more than 50 dance companies and choreographers, including the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. The Ransom Center holds more than 30,000 dance photographs by Fehl, mostly black-and-white, 5 x 7″ prints.
Fehl’s work in stage photography was revolutionary at its time. He was among the first stage photographers to take candid photographs using only available light, and he used high-speed film that captured dancers in mid-flight. Fehl photographed performances from the perspective of an audience member in the first row, bringing a new urgency and sensitivity to American stage photography.
Digitizing any collection requires numerous steps. Using the Fehl collection as an example, one can see and understand the process for digitizing an item and making it and accessible online. The collection is one of many digital collections now available on the Ransom Center’s website.
At this time, photographs of the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are available on the Ransom Center’s digital collections page. More photographs from the Fred Fehl dance collection will be added as the digitization project progresses.
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.
One of the most renowned items in the Ransom Center’s collections is the first photograph, which has been reproduced on the Center’s south atrium window. A French inventor named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took this first photograph from the window of his studio in France in the early 1820s, and due to a fortunate series of events, the photograph is part of the Ransom Center’s collections.
Niépce was born in 1765 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when great innovations were taking place around Europe. One of these innovations was the art of lithography, a form of printing that involves using chemicals on a flat, smooth surface to transfer images. Niépce became entranced by the lithographic process and began toying with its potential. A poor draftsman, he depended on his artistically inclined son Isidore to create illustrations for his lithographic pursuits. Isidore, however, was drafted into Napoleon’s army, leaving Niépce unable to create lithographs. Intent on finding a way to create images without having to draw them, Niépce turned to the camera obscura, a device developed in the Renaissance in which an image could be projected through a small hole into a darkened box or room. Inside this darkened space an image would be cast as a realistic, albeit upside down, projection. Niépce thought to capture this image using a light-sensitive material so that the light itself would “etch” the picture for him. In 1826, through a process of trial and error, he finally came upon the combination of bitumen of Judea (a form of asphalt) spread over a pewter plate. When he let this petroleum-based substance sit in a camera obscura for eight hours without interruption, the light gradually hardened the bitumen where it hit, thus creating a rudimentary photo. He “developed” this picture by washing away the unhardened bitumen with lavender water, revealing an image of the rooftops and trees visible from his studio window. Niépce had successfully made the world’s first photograph.
Excited with his new method of capturing images from life, Niépce hurried to present his invention of heliography, or “light writing,” to the Royal Society of London. Yet, the invention’s potential was not recognized, and he was turned away. Niépce was undeterred, and he joined with Louis Daguerre to continue refining his heliographic process. Although Niépce passed away before photography became an everyday staple, Daguerre kept experimenting and created the daguerreotype in 1839, which introduced the concept of photography to the wider world.
This important image came to the Ransom Center in 1963 from the photo historian Helmut Gernsheim. The First Photograph had gone missing after 1905. Gernsheim tracked it down in 1952 in the possession of the descendants of the previous owner, who found it in storage, sitting unknown in a crate all that time. A decade after this discovery, Gernsheim generously donated the one-of-a-kind object to the Center after its purchase of his photography collection. For more information on the First Photograph and its history, visit the First Photograph web exhibition.
The Gernsheim collection features many other prominent photographs, covering the history of photography through the 1960s. The Ransom Center also houses the Magnum Photos archive of nearly 200,000 photographs from the 1950s to the present, and other prominent works, making the Center a fruitful place for research.
Ransom Center volunteer Holly Hansel wrote this post.
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