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The first photograph gets a check-up

By Elana Estrin

In 1952, photohistorian Helmut Gernsheim rediscovered the first photograph lying forgotten in a trunk, 125 years after Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the famous image. “I held the foundation stone of photography in my hand,” Gernsheim recalled. “I felt myself in communication with Niépce. ‘Your nightmare existence in a trunk is over,’ I thought. ‘At long last you will be recognized as the inventor of photography.’”

Today, the first photograph is on permanent display in the Ransom Center’s lobby. In 2002, the Ransom Center and the Getty Conservation Institute began a collaborative conservation project for the first photograph. Dr. Shin Maekawa, Senior Scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, designed an oxygen-free display case to protect the heliograph from potential oxygen-induced deterioration. Both institutions regularly monitor conditions in the display case through a website, which logs oxygen, pressure, relative humidity, and temperature.

Maekawa returned to Austin in March to teach Ransom Center Photograph Conservator Barbara Brown how to maintain the case.

“We’ve been working on maintenance for the oxygen-free case in which the photograph is housed and presented,” Brown said. “This is something that needs to be done periodically. There have been no problems, but it’s always good to double-check the sensors every couple of years to make sure everything is running the way it’s supposed to.”

In addition to assisting Brown with maintenance, Maekawa also came to help the Ransom Center determine whether or not the first photograph could possibly tour.

“When you take a sealed case into an airplane, there’s a lot of pressure acting on the case. So the idea is [to find out] whether we can transport the case or not, and how we can go about it. Since I designed the case, being here will give me a better idea of exactly what other issues there are to consider. The main issue is to maybe build a special container for traveling,” Maekawa said.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporaries: Photographs from the Collections of the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton Museum of Art

By Alicia Dietrich

Manuel Álvarez Bravo 'Señor de Papantia' ('Man from Papantia'), 1934-35
Manuel Álvarez Bravo 'Señor de Papantia' ('Man from Papantia'), 1934-35
The Blanton Museum of Art’s current exhibition Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporaries features works from the Ransom Center’s photography collections. Blanton Associate Curator of Latin American Art Ursula Davila-Villa discusses the life and work of Álvarez Bravo.

One of the most fascinating aspects of photography is how images change the way we look at the ordinary in the world. Manuel Álvarez Bravo, a master in transforming the everyday into extraordinary images, worked during one of the most important and transformative periods in the history of Mexico. He was a prolific photographer who lived for 100 years. During the 1930s and 1940s, his photographs laid bare a city that saw rapid urban changes that reshaped the face of Mexico. Álvarez Bravo’s unique vision is characterized by intimate scenes that fused local and international artistic developments such as geometric abstraction and surrealism. In 1929, Edward Weston wrote to Álvarez Bravo: “photography’s fortunate in having someone with your viewpoint.”

Their relationship would later develop into a friendship that also included Tina Modotti. The three photographers would work in Mexico and document a country that would capture their minds and hearts. When Modotti was deported from Mexico due to her political activities, she gave Álvarez Bravo her Graflex camera as a gift. It was Modotti who introduced Álvarez Bravo to Eugène Atget’s work, which would become an important influence for Álvarez Bravo.

The exhibition Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporaries: Photographs from the Collections of the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton Museum of Art, on view at the Blanton Museum through August 1, features iconic images by Álvarez Bravo and his contemporaries (including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Walker Evans, and Edward Weston) drawn from the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton’s collections.

Magnum Archive Collection Comes to the Ransom Center

By David Coleman

Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman unpacks materials from the Magnum archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman unpacks materials from the Magnum archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman shares his thoughts on the Magnum Archive Collection coming to the Center. At that same link, view a video of Magnum Director Mark Lubell discussing the significance of the Magnum Archive Collection.

The roster includes more than 95 photographers who would, on their own, make up a definitive who’s who list of photography for the past six decades. More significantly, however, they compose what is perhaps the most recognizable single organization in 20th-century photography: Magnum. Magnum has never been the largest photo agency, but for more than 60 years the cooperative’s notoriously exclusive process of membership has forged an ever-changing band of photographers who are dedicated to communicating through images taken with a unique eye.

Magnum was established to afford some independence for its member photographers from the most controlling and limiting aspects of the media industry, and this freedom and flexibility has allowed the photographers to remain with a particular story, rather than having to fly from hot spot to hot spot like many magazine photographers. Indeed, Magnum’s hallmark has always been the depth with which its photographers have captured their subjects—operating as much or more in what might be termed a “documentary” sphere than one of pure photojournalism. In recent decades, that sphere has further broadened to include elements of art and a self-conscious personal expression. Yet Magnum’s overall purpose of revealing the complex world to itself has remained unchanged.

The nearly 200,000 images now housed at the Ransom Center include iconic as well as lesser-known images by these masters of photography, covering historic events and celebrations, political figures and movie stars, intense studies of urbanism and humanity, and documents of war, terror, murder, and atrocity. The depth of coverage by individual photographers is often multiplied by the number of photographers that cover a particular event or figure. For example, looking through the Martin Luther King, Jr. box, we find images taken by Bob Adelman, René Burri, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Leonard Freed, Burt Glinn, Erich Hartmann, Bob Henriques, Hiroji Kubota, Danny Lyon, and Costa Manos.

The Ransom Center is delighted to have been chosen by MSD Capital to safeguard a substantial and unique piece of history. We look forward to joining in partnership to further Magnum’s future by protecting and promoting the study of its history.

In talking with Mark Lubell, Director of Magnum Photos, about the many photographers who have been part of the cooperative, I was struck by his description of them as “visual authors.” Given the Ransom Center’s broad range of holdings of the greatest writers, poets, and playwrights, as well as photographers and other visual artists, we expect that our newest “authors” will find a nurturing home here. If we consider the humanities to be the serious contemplation of the human condition, we could certainly not find a more appropriate collection to welcome than the Magnum archive.

Items from Dress Up: Portrait and Performance in Victorian Photography

By Harry Ransom Center

Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)<br />The Rising of the New Year, 1872<br />Albumen print
Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
The Rising of the New Year, 1872
Albumen print

Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
The Rising of the New Year, 1872
Albumen print

Julia Margaret Cameron did not take up photography until she was 48 and the last of her children had left for college. Over the next 14 years she made over 1,200 images. She promoted her photography as fine art through sales and exhibitions, once writing that her passion was “to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.” Cameron was more artistically ambitious than her predecessors, and the bulk of her work consists of allegorical, mythological, literary, and Biblical illustrations, using as models friends, friends of friends, neighbors, family, and servants.

Cameron’s technique also distinguished her from her peers. By using a lens with a short focal length, she produced images in which only a small region of the sitter’s face would be in focus. Although this technique evolved from her early, awkward attempts at mastering photographic technique, she embraced and exploited this style for maximum expressive effect.

This was a controversial decision, however, as many critics felt she was turning her back on photography’s unique ability to capture detail. H. P. Robinson, her art photographer colleague and competitor, was blistering in his criticism, writing, “It is not the mission of photography to produce smudges. If studies in light and shade only are required, let them be done in pigment or charcoal, with a mop, if necessary, but photography is pre-eminently the art of definition, and when art departs from its function it is lost.”

T. A. RUST (active 1900s) The Game of Life, ca. 1895 Albumen prints
T. A. RUST (active 1900s) The Game of Life, ca. 1895 Albumen prints

T. A. RUST (active 1900s)
The Game of Life, ca. 1895
Albumen prints

The tableau vivant, or “living picture,” was one of the most popular forms of amateur performance and entertainment for the middle and upper classes during the nineteenth century. Tableaux required performers, dressed in suitable costumes, to arrange themselves in imitation of a literary or historical character, scene, or work of art. Tableaux were performed both privately and publicly, in venues ranging from aristocratic drawing-rooms for invited guests to large public theaters in front of a paying audience.

The Victorians’ interest in tableaux vivants carried into the popular imagery of the day. Commercial photographers who predominantly spent their time taking portrait photographs would, on occasion, produce genre-type scenes and other narrative images.

These types of images were most commonly produced as stereographs, which were collected by the thousands by Victorian households. These images were also issued in larger sizes, such as this one by T. A. Rust. It is unlikely that this photograph documents actual tableaux performed for an audience, as other photos in the exhibition with identical backdrops and floors would indicate that these were taken in Rust’s photographic studio.

“The Game of Life” is a moralizing tale of human existence, yet its humor playfully undermines the seriousness of its theme.

Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901) The Lady of Shalott, 1861 Albumen combination print from three negatives
Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901) The Lady of Shalott, 1861 Albumen combination print from three negatives

Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901)
The Lady of Shalott, 1861
Albumen combination print from three negatives

H. P. Robinson was one of the most prolific and vocal proponents of art photography in nineteenth-century Britain. One of his first attempts to link photography with literature was Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott.” In the poem, a lady is sequestered in a tower on an island near Camelot. She is forbidden to look directly outside, so she can only see the world through its reflection in a mirror. When Lancelot passes by one day, the temptation is too great and she looks directly out the window. A curse falls upon her, and she climbs into a boat, lies down, and sings to her death. This work was to become the most pivotal of Robinson’s career.

Robinson’s Shalott declared early in the medium’s history that photography could illustrate and interpret poetry, that is the imaginary. Critics felt otherwise, saying that the subject was beyond the appropriate boundaries for photography. After the negative reception to this work, Robinson vowed to stick to themes of “the life of our day,” and the rest of his career is dominated by genre themes, as is represented in his other photographs in this exhibition. Robinson’s photograph was also controversial because of his technique of combining multiple negatives to form the composition. Robinson and his supporters argued that any means should be available to a photographer in making a work of art (it was the final product that mattered, they argued, not the manner in achieving it). The majority of critics, however, argued that photography’s chief asset was its unique capability to accurately depict nature.

For these critics, slight-of-hand techniques such as combination printing were deceitful and inappropriate. Although Victorian England often embraced the blending of fiction with truth, it did not always approve of this approach when applied to photography.

Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895) Highlanders, 1856 Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)
Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895) Highlanders, 1856 Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)

Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895)
Highlanders, 1856
Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)

Printer, publisher, and photographer Joseph Cundall produced some of the most attractive popular illustrated books of the 1850s and ’60s, as well as several important early photographic publications. He was a founding member of the Photographic Society of London and, in 1871, was sent by the British government to Bayeux to organize the first photographic record of the famous tapestry.

The Photographic Exchange Club, which published the album containing this photo, was a club comprised of amateur photography enthusiasts who promoted the technological development of photography by trading prints. Each image in the album is accompanied by detailed information regarding its process and chemistry.

In 1856, on the instructions of Queen Victoria, Cundall took photographs of these soldier heroes, newly returned from the Crimea.

 

 

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Insider’s perspective: Artist Binh Danh

By Harry Ransom Center

The Ransom Center’s photography collection was pleased to acquire several pieces by emerging artist Binh Danh this past year.  Danh has pioneered a fascinating mode of printing directly on plant leaves through the natural process of photosynthesis.  By placing a negative in contact with a living leaf and then exposing it to sunlight for several weeks, the image literally becomes part of the leaf.  Danh then permanently “fixes” the image by casting it in resin.  He calls the finished piece a “cholorophyll print.”  These compelling objects appear very contemporary, but also harken back to the botanical photogenic drawings created by William Henry Fox Talbot at the dawn of photography. Read more