Christopher Bigsby, a professor of American Studies and the Director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia, has written extensively about Arthur Miller. He recently published a biography on the playwright, Arthur Miller (Harvard University Press, 2009), and he writes here about working at the Ransom Center.
I have been visiting the Harry Ransom Center for more than 30 years, most recently working on Arthur Miller’s papers, though the staff there must have been somewhat irritated when Miller held back boxes of materials so that I could work through them to write his biography. It delayed their arrival in Austin by nearly two years. You will even find among them a page bearing a lipstick kiss from Marilyn Monroe, a touch distracting to the serious scholar.
I once made a BBC television film about the Ransom Center during which I learned that in the event of fire, the area floods with inert gas. It is designed to preserve the collection though, alas, not the researchers. I am told that more recently they have exchanged this for a sprinkler system. As an academic I think that shows a failure of nerve. I approved of the earlier priority.
In England there is an excellent fish and chip chain called Harry Ramsden’s. I’ve been known to confuse the two, not least because both offer immediate satisfaction wrapped up in yesterday’s papers. For academics the Center is a kind of limbo. When you go there, you don’t know whether you will discover a path to heaven or hell. Will the hidden be revealed, theories proved, or will the notebooks of writers contradict everything you wish to say? Does tenure await or a life in advertising?
The Ransom Center is what the House of the Medicis once was to 14th century Florence. Admittedly it hasn’t as yet produced many Popes, but it has had a hand in a new Renaissance. In the past, its money, admittedly, came from oil and not banking (hard to know which it is harder to love right now) but its role in preserving our cultural heritage (the UK’s no less than the US) has been central. Where else but Texas, after all, should we look to research Winnie the Pooh?
As is the case with any incoming collection, the Magnum Photos collection came with its own unique set of challenges. Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman and I have worked to develop and implement a strategy for making the collection accessible to researchers in a timely and organized manner.
Creating the preliminary inventory
The agreement between MSD Capital, the owner of the collection, and the Ransom Center places the Magnum collection at the Center for at least five years and stipulates the photographs be made available. Desiring to open the collection as quickly as possible, the curator and I devised a two-phase approach for cataloging it.
The first phase was to translate Magnum’s original, complexly coded spreadsheet into a standardized preliminary box-level inventory. Working with Magnum’s archivist, Matt Murphy, I organized the materials in such a way that the arrangement reflects Magnum’s various filing systems and simultaneously unites them. As a result, the materials are divided into the following five series: Photographers (photographs by Magnum photographers); Personalities (photographs of persons of note, from movie stars to world leaders); Subject (a broad selection of topics designated by Magnum); Geographic (photographs arranged by geographic location); and Magnum (photographs of Magnum photographers, agency staff, newspaper clippings, and non-Magnum photographs used for special projects).
The Personalities series of the original spreadsheet provided only name ranges for these boxes (e.g., Rodgers to Roosevelt). So throughout the spring, Jillian Patrick, an undergraduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, meticulously listed the personality’s name on each folder contained within the 200 boxes. Assistant Photographic Archivist Nicole Davis and I then spent more than one month editing that list and entering the Library of Congress’s authorized form of each personality’s name when available. When not available, we devised name forms according to the second revision of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules. This proved challenging, given the creative spelling and reverse order of various names found on Magnum’s folders. All original folder headings were maintained in the inventory, but references to the authority form of each name are also provided.
With the six-month anniversary of the collection’s arrival fast approaching, I converted the preliminary inventory into Encoded Archival Description, making it fully accessible and searchable online. The name authority work for all personalities is not complete, but 84 percent of the boxes are currently listed at the folder-level in the online version of the preliminary inventory. In the coming months, a revised version of the finding aid, with the Personalities series completed, will be posted online.
In January, I hope to begin the second phase of cataloging the collection, which should take 12 months. The end result will be a detailed archival finding aid and a searchable database enabling researchers to locate all prints by any photographer in the collection.
As an avid reader of Denis Johnson’s work (I bought my first Playboy magazine to read Nobody Move in serial form), I was thrilled to have the opportunity to go through his papers. Seeing Johnson speak at the 2008 Flair Symposium, “Creating a Usable Past: Writers, Archives, & Institutions,” had amplified, for me at least, the desire to know as much as one can about a favorite author. Flair’s intimate venue and Johnson’s candidness about his own archive gave mystique to his lost work and to what he has decided to save—for with Johnson, this decision is both deliberate and thoughtful. For those who weren’t there, here is a video of Johnson discussing his past habit of throwing away drafts and one of his more recent decisions to destroy a notebook, essentially censoring his own archive.
Two years after Flair, among the most exciting finds in Johnson’s papers were two pages of a draft of “Emergency,” a story from Jesus’ Son, which had been severely crumpled and then smoothed out to fit in a folder with other drafts of the story. One can only speculate as to why these pages were crumpled, but perhaps they are a testament to Johnson’s statement that, after hearing that poet Donald Justice received $17,000 for the drafts of one of his books, Johnson “went upstairs and emptied his wastebasket.” Scholars and fans alike will be grateful that he did.
There are treasures relating to his early life and even some drafts dated before 1992 (Johnson included a note with several stacks of floppy discs stating “These discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992″). There is a binder of press clippings housed with a mother’s devotion in neat, plastic sleeves; letters, report cards, and other mementos of Johnson’s youth; a draft of the story “Happy Hour,” from Jesus’ Son, dated 9-26-1991, and another draft bearing the alternate title “Electric Child on Bad Fun”—a draft that proved to be quite different from its published form.
Johnson said that it was “liberating” to throw away drafts because they “were like skins [he] was shedding and leaving behind.” He adds that this process of shedding skins did more for him as an artist than his drafts could for a researcher. But after Johnson decided to save his skins, his awareness of his papers’ archival destination raises an issue new to the modern area: censorship. It’s hard to imagine Evelyn Waugh or Charlotte Bronte experiencing self-consciousness about writing in a journal because a scholar might someday read it and scoff, but many of today’s top authors are aware that placing their papers at libraries engages part of an important branch of scholarship (and occasionally comes with a pay-off). What does this self-awareness mean for them as artists and archivists, and what does it mean for the future of archives? I’m not one to speculate, but I expect that as more living writers place their archives at libraries, the nature of the archive will evolve, for better or worse.
We have read thousands of letters to and from Knopf authors, editorial reports, publicity materials, and sales accounts. Despite having lived in their “house,” read their personal letters, and viewed Alfred’s photographs, I don’t feel that I understand either of the Knopfs particularly well. Both were temperamental and rife with contradictions. This may explain why despite their importance in the history of publishing, the Knopfs have yet to be the subjects of a book-length biography, although there have been attempts, and several projects are currently underway.
Alfred and Blanche Knopf were both notoriously demanding of themselves, their editorial staff, and their authors. When Knopf, Inc. burst onto the American publishing scene in 1915, the couple were among the few Jewish publishers. Alfred was famously denied admittance to a lunchtime circle of publishers, whereupon he formed his own. Their status as outsiders may have something to do with their aggressive, take-no-prisoners business style. Or to put it another way, the Knopfs had ‘tude. And they had style. In a button-down world of publishing, Alfred stood out with his lavender shirts and strident ties; a London tailor once refused to make a shirt out of some brightly hued cloth the publisher had chosen. Blanche, attired in Parisian haute couture, lived near the edge, subsisting largely on salads and martinis. As a female publishing executive, she too was a pioneer with something to prove.
Yet the Knopfs had a softer, gentler side. By the 1920s, they had decided to live independent lives in separate apartments, but on weekends they generally retired to “The Hovel” up the Hudson, in Purchase, New York, to live an apparently tranquil country life. There they frequently entertained their friends and authors, who were often the same people. The Knopfs had a knack for engaging their best authors on a personal level, wining and dining them (Alfred was a noted gourmet and oenophile) and exuding charm. Blanche bought a trenchcoat for Albert Camus and gloves for Elizabeth Bowen. Alfred took snapshots and made home movies of the guests. The devotion of these authors and others, such as Carl Van Vechten and H. L. Mencken, radiates from their letters. As Alfred Knopf maintained, “a publishing house is known by the company it keeps,” and by that measure both the Knopfs were the greatest publishers of their day.
[Also, see earlier blog post about the friendship between Blanche Knopf and Albert Camus.]
Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
As the Making Movies exhibition demonstrates, a costume can reveal much about a film character. For example, a character’s social and economic class can be represented through the style and quality of her or his clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and whether those clothes are clean and fresh or tattered and soiled. Clothing also exposes a character’s unique personality traits and self-image. Steve Wilson, the Ransom Center’s Associate Curator of Film, talks about Robert De Niro’s costume in Taxi Driver, and how it supports and enhances the interpretation of the character Travis Bickle.
Associate Curator of Film Steve Wilson elaborates about Making Movies, an exhibition that focuses on the artistic collaboration that is unique to the medium. Wilson shares how the Ransom Center’s holdings document the history of the motion picture industry to illustrate the highly collaborative nature of the movie-making process.
In February, MSD Capital L.P., Magnum Photos and the Ransom Center announced that the collection would reside at the Ransom Center pursuant to an agreement with its new owner, an affiliate of MSD Capital, which had recently acquired the prints from Magnum Photos.
The Stanley Burns tintype collection is a remarkable and rare assemblage of unusually large, hand-colored, American tintypes in period frames. With more than 130 items, this is one of the largest collections of its kind.
Portraiture in America has a long tradition. In the colonial era, painted portraits provided a historical record of prominent figures, while miniatures and silhouettes provided more intimate records of family members. As the middle classes prospered in the early nineteenth century, painted portraiture flourished. With the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, the face of portraiture started to change. The daguerreotype required one- to three-minute exposures, which were hard for people to hold, but as other photographic mediums were developed, such as ambrotypes and tintypes, photography began to replace painting as the standard technique for portraits.
Tintypes, like daguerreotypes, are one-of-a-kind photographs. There is no negative, as the image is exposed directly onto the substrate. The word “tintype” is, in fact, a misnomer, as iron, not tin, was used as the substrate. The tintype process was faster, cheaper, and produced a more accurate depiction than a painting, which led to its rise in popularity, especially with the middle and working classes. The necessary equipment and chemistry were portable and thus allowed photographers to travel, providing access to people in rural areas and to Civil War soldiers.
The Burns collection consists almost entirely of portraits, many of which are of individuals, including paired sets of husbands and wives. Additionally there are family portraits, some of which are “composite” images where the photographer reproduced earlier portraits of individuals into one group portrait, a method often used to include deceased family members. There are also many portraits of children, including post-mortem photographs of infants. Portraits of African-Americans and people in trade uniforms exemplify how photography helped democratize art by making it accessible to lower and working class citizens.
The tintypes in this collection are all painted, either with oil paints or watercolor. Some are painted heavily in a folk-art style while others have only minimal colorization. Tintypes were not usually painted, but doing so placed them within the tradition of painted portraiture and thus closer to being fine art. Painting them also made up for the poor contrast of tintypes and could make them appear more life-like. Most commonly, tintypes measured about two by three inches and were housed in paper display folders, but the ones in this collection measure six by eight inches or larger and are displayed in elaborate frames, another practice that helped raise the status of the photograph to fine art.
The frames in the collection are of equal importance to the photographs, and they represent a variety of styles—from the plain to the elaborate—and date from 1840 to 1910. Renaissance revival and federal revival styles are simple and elegant; rococo revival frames include scrollwork and flower motifs. Many frames in the collection are Eastlake style, named for the nineteenth-century British architect and tastemaker Charles Eastlake. These consist of ebonized or marbleized wood with incised geometric patterns. Aesthetic style frames, also well represented in this collection, are distinguished by the clarity of their molded designs with motifs inspired by nature. The collection also includes frames in tramp art and rustic styles, which are more simply decorated, carved-wood designs. The range of styles from simple wood constructions to elaborate gilt moldings reveal the social status of each photograph and, by extension, the subjects.
Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.
Writer Alan Furst, whose archive is housed at the Ransom Center, is known for his historical espionage novels set in pre-World War II Europe. His most recent novel, Spies of the Balkans, will be released today. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Furst” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight for a chance to win one of two copies of the book. [Update: This contest has ended, and winners have been notified.]
Furst visited the Ransom Center last fall and sat down for an interview to discuss his writing and his archive. Below are some excerpts from the interview.
Furst discusses why he writes spy novels.
Furst discusses how he develops atmosphere in his books.
Furst talks about what it means for him and his career to have his papers housed at the Ransom Center.
Fans of Furst can also check out his recommended reading, read his Writers Reflect interview, and listen to him read from his book Spies of Warsaw on the Ransom Center’s website.
Books of Hours were medieval prayer books designed for laymen. Part I of this series outlined the historical context for the emergence of the Book of Hours as a distinctive class of text and provides an introduction to the subject. The current installment takes a look inside a Book of Hours and illustrates some of the more common elements of these books with images drawn from the Ransom Center’s collections.