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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. 

Fellows Find: The ‘most wonderful’ images in an album of 19th-century photos of a fishing village in Glasgow

By Sara Stevenson

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.

Steps—not dance steps—to digitizing a collection

By Chelsea Weathers

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.

From the Outside In: First photograph, "View from the Window at Le Gras," Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, ca. 1826

By Harry Ransom Center

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.

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.