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Drawing parallels: Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Julia Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms”

By Richard Oram

Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf begins with a famous sentence:  “Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.” Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an eminent critic and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography; his first wife was W. M. Thackeray’s daughter Minny. The second Mrs. Stephen, Woolf’s mother, was Julia Prinsep Duckworth, celebrated as a model for the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

 

Julia Stephen was a practicing nurse and the author of a single slim volume, Notes from Sick Rooms, published by Smith, Elder (her husband’s publisher) in 1885. No doubt it was published in a very small edition, most likely as a favor to the Stephens. The Ransom Center recently acquired a copy of this book, which is remarkable for a couple of reasons.  First, nearly all the surviving copies are found in medical or nursing libraries, not in special collections specializing in modern literature. Secondly, this copy was inscribed in July 1934 by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, to her lover Duncan Grant and was probably one of a handful of copies kept in family hands.

 

Stephen’s little book is not a nursing manual but rather a collection of practical advice on tending the sick (this task would have been an inescapable part of life for every Victorian).  The text is not without a sly, allusive wit worthy of Woolf:  “The origin of most things has been decided on [a reference to Darwin?], but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer.” Based on the evidence of this book, Julia Stephen seems to have been ideally suited to the profession—a tireless caregiver with a great deal of compassion and consideration for the dignity of invalids.

 

The same compassion is palpable in Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” published in her friend T. S. Eliot’s New Criterion in 1926.  In this piece, she drew upon her own extensive personal experience of migraines, pneumonia, and a host of nervous complaints that often confined her to bed. The author wonders why illness is not more frequently written about in essays, since disease confers upon the sufferer a unique perspective on the world: “It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer.” Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and our knowledge of Virginia’s eventual suicide, the essay abounds with good humor and intellectual playfulness.

 

Woolf would be surprised to find that disease has become the subject of so many memoirs and that critics have identified a modern genre of “pathography.”  Like Woolf, quite a few of these memoirists struggle to find some hidden meaning in their illness— the so-called “gift” of depression, cancer, or what have you. Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms, rooted in another era, simply accepts that illness and its “disagreeable circumstances” are part of life.

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Scholar explores rich collections of stage photographs

By Gabrielle Inhofe

David S. Shields, the McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina, visited the Ransom Center this year to research the history of theatrical photography in North America.

 

The Ransom Center houses large collections of stage photographs, such as the Ziegfeld photographs, the dance collection, the card photograph collection, and the minstrel show collection.  The collections showcased costumes between 1870 and 1910, the work of William Edward Elcha, Broadway’s only African-American photographer of the early twentieth century, and photographs from several women working in the theatrical portrait trade from 1920 to 1925.

 

Shields’s research at the Ransom Center was supported by the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship in 2013.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

From the Outside In: Walker Evans’s Allie Mae Burroughs, 1936

By Jane Robbins Mize

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.

 

The haunting eyes of Allie Mae Burroughs look straight at us in this photograph taken by Walker Evans in the summer of 1936. Her gaze has a certain resignation, and her mouth doesn’t quite smile. This is the face of a woman old before her time, who has known not only hard work but the realization that her children have gone to bed hungry. Allie Mae Burroughs was 27, a mother of four and the wife of Alabama sharecropper Floyd Burroughs, when Walker Evans photographed her for what would become an iconic image of the Great Depression in the United States. The Burroughs family’s life was chronicled in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans.

 

James Agee was a journalist working for Fortune magazine in 1936 when he was given an assignment to document the lives of poor white Southern farmers. At Agee’s insistence, photographer Walker Evans, finishing up his assignments as a Farm Security Administration photographer, accompanied him to Hale County, Alabama, in July and August of that year. Agee and Evans happened upon three men who had just been told that even under the New Deal programs designed to aid the poor, their families did not qualify for help. The journalists ended up spending weeks documenting the everyday lives of these men and their families through photographs, detailed lists of the contents of their homes, and a text miscellany that includes poems, long reflections, bits of dialog, and a survey response to the Partisan Review.

 

Agee created a portrait of life in the Depression that was too comprehensive for Fortune to publish, and he considered the story too important to be cut and rewritten in a manner that would suit the magazine. It took until 1941 for Agee’s notes and Evans’s photographs to be compiled into a manuscript that was accepted for publication. By that time, however, the war in Europe was reigniting the American economy, and the Depression was no longer a story that interested the public. The first printing of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sold little more than 500 copies. Interest in the text was renewed in the 1960s, however, and today the book is considered not only a great work about the Depression but also a masterpiece of photography and writing.

 

Evans is a celebrated photographer known for the straight-forward elegance of his style and for his study of American culture from the late 1920s to the 1970s. In Looking at Photographs (1973), John Szarkowski, Director of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote: “Evans’s work… was puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual, qualities that seemed more appropriate to a bookkeeper’s ledger than to art. But in time it became clear that [his art] constitutes a personal survey of the interior resources of the American tradition, a survey based on a sensibility that found poetry and complexity where most earlier travelers had found only drab statistics or fairy tales.”

 

The Harry Ransom Center holds the James Agee collection, which includes an original typescript of the book and nearly 300 prints produced by Walker Evans over the course of this project.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Karen White wrote this post

From the Outside In: Fritz Henle’s Photograph, “Ruhr Miner,” 1967

By Jane Robbins Mize

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.

 

This photograph from the windows of the Harry Ransom Center shows a coal miner from the Ruhr Valley in Germany resting next to a window after a long shift. The sunlight from the window contrasts with the miner’s face and clothes, still blackened by coal dust. The white container in his hand holds a quart of cold milk, which each miner was required to drink after his shift was over. The image can be likened to Migrant Mother in the adjacent window, particularly in the expressions of rugged self-reliance and the excellent tonal reproduction on the faces.

 

Fritz Henle was born in 1909, the son of well-to-do Jewish parents. As a teenager he showed great interest in photography and built himself a darkroom in his parents’ basement. When he applied to attend photography school at the Bavarian Institute of Photography in Munich, the faculty were so impressed by the portfolio he brought along that they allowed him to join as a second-year student. He finished the program at the top of his class. He always used Rolleiflex cameras, which generate large, high-quality negatives, and his mastery of photo composition allowed him to take well-balanced pictures of any subject.

 

Henle established his career in pre–World War II Germany, but during the rise of the Nazi Party, he left the country for an assignment as a photojournalist in the United States and did not return. He rapidly established himself as a documentary photographer working for the U.S. Office of War Information during the difficult war years. He photographed mundane objects requested by his clients, but he composed them to produce attractive images, and his business grew. He established himself as an independent, commercial photographer after the war, produced thousands of images on numerous assignments, and became known as “the last classic freelance photographer.”

 

Ruhr Miner was taken late in his career. The light in the picture, apparently coming from an open window, is sufficiently diffused so that the shadows are not completely blacked out but greatly enhance the grimy atmosphere of the photo as a whole. For the best effect, this window should be viewed with as dark a background as possible.

 

Henle himself wrote 20 books on photography. Much of the information in this description has been drawn from book Fritz Henle: In Search of Beauty by the Ransom Center’s Senior Research Curator of Photography, Roy Flukinger.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Alan Herbert wrote this post.

From the Outside In: “Transept of the Crystal Palace,” Benjamin Brecknell Turner, March 1852

By Edgar Walters

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.

 

This image captures the dramatic scale of the Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first international world’s fair. It was the largest glass building at the time, covering 990,000 square feet of Hyde Park in the middle of London, and so tall that it could enclose whole elm trees. The photograph was taken at the end of the exhibition, before the palace was dismantled and rebuilt in the suburb Sydenham, south of the city, as an even grander permanent exhibition space.

 

The Great Exhibition had been envisioned by Prince Albert to show off the wonders of British technology, and the Crystal Palace itself was one of the greatest wonders on show. Designing a building to house the more than 14,000 exhibits of the Exhibition had been a long and difficult process. Until the planning committee accepted Joseph Paxton’s winning design in July 1850, they had rejected every submitted proposal as too expensive to build, in addition to a design that they themselves had created and that had been ridiculed by the press. Paxton was one of the most respected gardeners in the United Kingdom and had ample experience creating large greenhouses. His Crystal Palace design took advantage of a newly invented process for mass-producing sheet glass. Held together by cast iron supports, 900,000 square feet of glass were used to create a modular structure at a cost less than half of many of the other designs. The modular design also allowed Paxton to make changes as needed; the transept in this picture was specially created to enclose a line of elms that otherwise would have been cut down. The final structure was 72 feet wide, more than 1,800 feet (six football fields) long, and up to 100 feet high, but Paxton was able to construct it on budget in only five months, in time for the opening of the exhibition on May 1, 1851.

 

Among its other attractions, the exhibition included one of the first large-scale displays of photographs anywhere in the world: over 700 photographs from six different countries. Photographer Benjamin Brecknell Turner was likely one of the people who saw these photos. In 1852, he photographed the Crystal Palace with a large-field camera, creating some of the most dramatic architectural compositions of the Victorian Age. Turner had gained a license to use William Fox Talbot’s calotype technique in 1849, and he preferred to use this method for all of his large-scale 30 x 40 centimeter paper negatives from then on. With his new camera, he was able to capture the Crystal Palace in striking detail, and he became one of the pioneers of photography’s early era.

 

This image forms a part of the Ransom Center’s Gernsheim collection, which documents the history of photography from the First Photograph (ca. 1826) until the 1960s.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Emilio Englade wrote this post.

 

Image: From the original calotype paper negative of “Transept of the Crystal Palace,” Benjamin Brecknell Turner, March 1852.

From the Outside In: David Douglas Duncan’s photograph “Picasso’s Eyes,” 1957

By Jane Robbins Mize

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.

 

When Pablo Picasso walked into a room of people, his intense gaze commanded attention. He could seduce, caress, or even frighten people with his piercing eyes. His gaze still attracts many Harry Ransom Center patrons, even young school children, when they walk into the south atrium. There they see the window etching of David Douglas Duncan’s photograph of Picasso’s eyes, which calls attention to the Center’s archive of Duncan’s work and to his connection with the artist.

 

Duncan, an American photojournalist, began his professional career selling his picture stories to newspapers and magazines. In 1943, Duncan enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and was sent to the Pacific Theater. There, he took photographs of aerial missions and operations on the Solomon Islands, the Battle of Okinawa, and the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Duncan’s training and experiences during World War II prepared him well for future assignments covering both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. His ability to capture not only the action but also the human face of war, frequently at significant risk to himself, cemented his reputation as one of the greatest war photographers of the twentieth century.

 

In 1946, just one month after discharge from the military, Duncan was hired by Life magazine to be its correspondent to the Middle East, a position he held until 1956. The magazine sent Duncan all over the world to cover important events, including the end of the British Raj in India, various cultures of Africa, Afghanistan, and Japan, and conflicts in both the Middle East and—most notably—Korea. His photographs and captions reflect the viewpoints of ordinary people as well as those in power. While working for Life, Duncan grew increasingly frustrated when his images were used to illustrate articles by writers with whom he strongly disagreed. So in 1951, he published This Is War!, his own photo-narrative of the Korean War. Since then he has published 25 photography books on a number of subjects.

 

Duncan has said that his favorite person to photograph was Pablo Picasso. The two met in southern France in 1956, and were friends for the remaining 17 years of Picasso’s life. In 1957, Duncan published The Private World of Pablo Picasso, the first of eight books about the great artist. For the photograph of Picasso’s eyes, Duncan cropped the original image to achieve a dramatic effect. Two copies of the cropped image—which Duncan mounted to canvas—became the foundation for Picasso’s self-portraits as an owl. The Ransom Center holds several original works by Picasso resulting from his close friendship with Duncan; these include a sketch of Duncan at work and a lunch plate painted with a portrait of Duncan’s dachshund, Lump, signed and inscribed to the dog.

 

More information about both Duncan and Picasso is available in the Ransom Center’s web exhibition David Douglas Duncan.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Carol Headrick wrote this post.

Ransom Center staff to contribute to new Texas-themed UT Press book series

By Gabrielle Inhofe

The University of Texas Press recently announced the undertaking of the publishing project The Texas Bookshelf, a series of 16 books, with an accompanying website, focusing on all things Texan.  All books are to be written by faculty and staff at The University of Texas at Austin.  The inaugural book, to be released in 2017, will be a history of Texas written by Stephen Harrigan, faculty member at the Michener Center for Writers.  The subsequent books will focus on Texas history, business, culture, art, music, film, politics, and more.

 

Of the contributors, two are affiliated with the Harry Ransom Center.

 

Greg Curtis, Humanities Coordinator at the Ransom Center and Senior Lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin, plans to write a book on the history of Texas literature, with profiles of the lives of Texas writers and critical responses to their work.

 

Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator at the Ransom Center, will be writing and compiling a volume about the evolution and expansion of twentieth-century photography in Texas, which will feature hundreds of significant images created by important photographers and artists who worked throughout the state during that century.

 

Image: Photo of contributors to UT Press series The Texas Bookshelf by Michael O’Brien.