LightBox, TIME’s photography blog, included the anthology Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews (University of Texas Press, 2012) as one of its “2012 photobooks of the year.”
Jessica S. McDonald, the Ransom Center’s Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography, edited the anthology, which provided the first comprehensive overview of Lyons’s career as one of the most important voices in American photography.
In anticipation of Lyons’s November 8, 2012, visit to the Ransom Center, McDonald shared insight about the photographer, curator, and educator.
Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews is available online through University of Texas Press.
Jessica S. McDonald, the Ransom Center’s Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography, speaks with photographer, curator, and educator Nathan Lyons about his career and role in the expansion of American photography on this Thursday, November 8, at 7 p.m.
McDonald edited the anthology Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews (UT Press, 2012), which provides the first comprehensive overview of Lyons’s career as one of the most important voices in American photography. Below, McDonald shares insight about Lyons.
A relative newcomer to the arts and humanities, photography’s history is still largely uncharted, contested, and complex. The full impact of major figures on the development of this young field, especially during the American “photo boom” of the 1960s and 1970s, has not yet been accounted for. The historical complexity of this era became especially fascinating to me during my tenure in the Department of Photographs at George Eastman House, the museum of photography and film in Rochester, New York, that was a key center of creative and intellectual activity when few other museums collected photographs.
In Rochester I met Nathan Lyons, a figure who has had an inestimable impact on the history of photography in the United States and its expansion over the last five decades. As a curator at Eastman House in the 1960s, Lyons organized some of the most groundbreaking and ambitious exhibitions of the time, and he later founded the Visual Studies Workshop, an independent arts organization and graduate program that trainedthe next generation of photographers, critics, curators, and historians. Lyons played a role in founding many of photography’s important organizations, including the Society for Photographic Education, and consistently advocated for photographers to funding agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts. All the while he was an active photographer, exhibiting his work at nearly every major U. S. museum and publishing several volumes of his own photographs, including Notations in Passing (1974) and Riding 1st Class on the Titanic! (1999).
In 2008 I began formally researching his role in American photography, and with his cooperation—including generous access to his files and countless interviews—I put together a volume of his photographs and writings. Lyons will join me in conversation at the Harry Ransom Center this Thursday to celebrate the publication of Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews, published this year by UT Press. The presentation will combine photographs representing Lyons’s artistic development with a discussion of his pivotal essays and lectures. We will also consider contributions from important scholars in the field who have written on Lyons’s work as an artist, his influence as a curator, and his widespread impact as an educator. A book signing follows.
The program will be webcast live Thursday starting at 7 p.m. CST.
In February 2013, the Harry Ransom Center will host the first U.S. showing of the exhibition Arnold Newman: Masterclass, a posthumous retrospective of photographer Arnold Newman (1918–2006).
The exhibition was organized by the American nonprofit organization Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP) in collaboration with the Ransom Center. The show, curated by FEP’s William Ewing, highlights 200 framed vintage prints spanning Newman’s career, selected from the privately held Arnold Newman Archive and the collections of major American museums and private collectors. Twenty-eight photographs from the Ransom Center’s Newman archive are featured in the exhibition.
Newman’s subjects included world leaders, authors, artists, musicians, and scientists—Pablo Picasso in his studio; Igor Stravinsky sitting at the piano; Truman Capote lounging on his sofa; and Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, in the attic where his family hid from the Nazis for more than two years.
Complementing the exhibition is Ewing’s Masterclass: Arnold Newman (Thames & Hudson Inc., New York), which pays homage to Newman and includes more than 200 photographs, four essays, and short biographies of Newman’s sitters. Essay contributors include Ewing; David Coleman, director of the Witliff Collections at Texas State University and former curator of photography at the Ransom Center; and Arthur Ollman, professor at San Diego State University and curator of many exhibitions produced in collaboration with Newman.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal’s “Photo-Op: Chair Man” highlighted the book with Newman’s photo of Charles Eames in his studio.
The First Photograph will be loaned, along with 119 other images and photography-related items from the Harry Ransom Center’s Gernsheim collection, to the Reiss Englehorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany, for the exhibition “The Birth of Photography-Highlights of the Helmut Gernsheim Collection.” The exhibition runs from September 9 through January 6, 2013.
The First Photograph has been removed from display at the Ransom Center to be prepared for its departure in July. The First Photograph will be back on display at the Ransom Center in February 2013.
The First Photograph was acquired by the Ransom Center as part of the Gernsheim collection from Helmut and Alison Gernsheim in 1963. Taken in 1826 or 1827, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras depicts the view from an upstairs window at Niépce’s estate, Le Gras, which is in the Burgundy region of France. Niépce’s photograph represents the foundation of today’s photography, film, and other media arts.
The First Photograph forms the cornerstone of Helmut Gernsheim’s photographic collection, which was the largest in the world when the Ransom Center acquired it in 1963. The Gernsheim collection is one of the seminal collections in the United States of the history of photography and contains an unparalleled range of more than 35,000 images. Its encyclopedic scope—as well as the expertise with which the Gernsheims assembled the collection — makes the Gernsheim collection one of the world’s premier sources for the study and appreciation of photography
In 2002, the Forum International Photographie at the Reiss Engelhorn Museum acquired Gernsheim’s later collection of contemporary photography, along with his own photographs and archive. For the first time in half a century, major portions of both Gernsheim collections are being reunited: the historical material housed in the Ransom Center and the contemporary collection in the Forum International Photographie at the Reiss Engelhorn Museum.
While the First Photograph is on loan, the photographic print View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826, 2009 by Adam Schreiber will occupy the display in the Ransom Center’s lobby. The photograph depicts the Niepce plate in situ in the museum display, as photographed by Schreiber in 2009. Schreiber is a member of the Lakes Were Rivers artist collective, a group of artists who work primarily in photography and video. In summer 2013, the Ransom Center will host an exhibition in which members of the collective will display their original works paired with Ransom Center collection material that inspired them.
The Ransom Center has appointed Jessica S. McDonald, a curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as its new chief curator of photography. McDonald begins her position at the Ransom Center in September.
As the Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography, McDonald will oversee a collection that spans from the world’s earliest-known photograph to prints from some of the great masters of the twenty-first century. The Center’s photography holdings include the Helmut and Alison Gernsheim collection, a seminal collection of the history of photography and one of the world’s premier sources for the study and appreciation of photography.
In addition to the history of photography, the Ransom Center’s photography collection focuses on photojournalism and documentary photography, with holdings of more than 5 million prints and negatives, supplemented by books, manuscripts, journals, and memorabilia of photographers.
“McDonald’s broad experiences — from teaching to curatorial — confirmed that she can lead our photography department, build the collection, support research, and plan exhibitions,” said Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. “The possibilities under her guidance are exciting.”
McDonald’s professional experience includes affiliations with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Visual Studies Workshop and George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. In 2011, McDonald received an Ansel Adams Research Fellowship from the Center for Creative Photography.
Ileana Selejan, Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, recently spent time in the Magnum Photos collection with a dissertation fellowship from the Ransom Center. Selejan’s work focuses on aesthetics in war photography and protest art at the turn of the 1980s, specifically on the Sandinista revolution, the counter revolutionary war in Nicaragua.
The primary resource I consulted while in residency at the Harry Ransom Center between October and November 2011 was the Magnum Photos collection. I was interested in photographs taken in Nicaragua during the 1978–1979 Sandinista revolution and the subsequent Contra War until circa 1989, and I mainly looked at work by Susan Meiselas, Larry Towell, Abbas, and Chris Steele-Perkins. Some key questions guided my research: What constituted the “subject” for each of these photographers? How are the Sandinistas portrayed? How well documented was the counter-revolutionary side? Is there documentation of combat? How comprehensive is it? What are the main differences between work done before, during, and after the revolution? How are the victims of the war portrayed? Broader questions having to do with authorship, subjectivity, and the role of the photographer, as both outside observer and “concerned” witness, were at the core of heated debates that divided the photographic community in the 1980s. Politics and ethics, as the long war in Nicaragua proved, were hard to separate from the photographic records. The complexity of the images produced in this period is furthered with the introduction of a discussion of aesthetics.
For instance, the use of color in Susan Meiselas’s photographs from the revolution (published first in the press and later in 1981 as a group of 72 images in her seminal book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979) was one of the most innovative aspects of the period. Yet throughout the eighties, other Magnum photographers working in Nicaragua—Abbas, Larry Towell, and Chris Steele-Perkins—chose to stay with the rather traditional war photography aesthetic, established by earlier generations of war photographers, from Robert Capa to Henri Cartier Bresson. This style was certainly not exclusively a Magnum feature, since the majority of the photographers working in Nicaragua, local and international correspondents alike, chose black and white over color.
For at least a few years, Nicaragua became a powerful, highly controversial subject in U.S. politics and media. It cast a looming shadow over the Reagan administration throughout most of its years in power. Especially as the war in El Salvador escalated in parallel to the war in Nicaragua, many human rights workers, volunteers, journalists, and writers became involved in one way or another with the repercussions of the wars in the whole region. The violence was documented in detail, both in images and in writing. Even so, a large part of these conflicts remained unseen, forgotten, or remembered by only few of the survivors. At the same time, the contributions of numerous photographers expanded beyond the mere photographic documentation of the war. For instance, in 1990, Larry Towell published Somozas’ Last Stand, Testimonies from Nicaragua—an undersized book that consists primarily of testimonies of the victims of the war, placed along a minimal selection of his own photographs.
In 1983 Susan Meiselas co-curated the exhibition Inside El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, which consisted of work by the majority of the photographers active during the war in El Salvador, including her own. It was intended as a protest show, and as it traveled in the U.S. and abroad, it attempted to raise awareness yet again to the brutal consequences of the involvement of the American government in the war. The original exhibition records, prints, and text panels are stored in the archives of the Ransom Center.
The wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador remain two of the most documented conflicts of the 1980s. Both were brutal in the extreme, and the abuses of both sides, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, remain largely perplexing. Perhaps the hardest challenge has been to look at images of atrocities in such great numbers. Even as a twice-removed witness, it has been a difficult task to create distance and assume the position of the historian.
Writer and filmmaker Errol Morris, winner of an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, an Emmy, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival, drew on the Ransom Center’s photography collections for his most recent book, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography,published by Penguin in September 2011.
Morris’s interest in the mysteries of photography grew around the debate over two nearly identical Roger Fenton photographs in the Ransom Center’s collections. The photographs were taken in sequence in a place called the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” during the Crimean War.
In one photo, the road through the valley is bare and the ditches full of cannonballs. In the other, the road is scattered with cannonballs. The photographs were taken on April 23, 1855, between 3 and 5 p.m., but photography scholars debate which photograph was taken first. The discrepancy between the images inevitably leads to a question of Fenton’s involvement. In which photograph did Fenton manipulate the scene?
Morris’s interest led him to Crimea to investigate. He borrowed a cannonball, found the valley, and came to a conclusion that caused him to question whether we can, 150 years later, recover the truth of Fenton’s intentions. Morris wrote extensively about this adventure for The New York Times.
Through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” photographs and a few others, Morris reveals how much of a photograph can be obscured by the viewer’s beliefs. A photographic detective story, Believing is Seeing is an exploration of the origins, intentions, and products of photographers.