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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. 

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.

 

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