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.
By John Mraz
John Mraz is a research professor in the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades “Alfonso Vélez Pliego” of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. He received a fellowship from the David Douglas Duncan Endowment for Photojournalism and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment to study “Jimmy Hare’s Photographs of the Mexican Revolution.”
In 2012, my book Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons was published by the University of Texas Press. The leading combat photographer of that struggle was Jimmy Hare, who brought to Mexico the experience he had acquired in the Cuban-Spanish-American War (1898) and the Russo-Japanese War (1905). The Ransom Center is home to the James H. Hare collection, and, as my book had concentrated on the Mexican photographers (and specifically on determining their commitments to the different factions), I decided to investigate Hare’s photography of the Mexican Revolution in greater depth, with the idea of producing a short monograph on his imagery of that struggle. There are approximately 120 images (largely in the form of lantern slides) in the archive relating to the Mexican Revolution (1911–1917). The great majority of these are of the 1911 battle of Ciudad Juárez, though some ten images of the 1914 U.S. invasion of Veracruz also can be found in this archive.
I had hoped to find new images, especially of the Veracruz invasion, and documents (diaries, field notes, letters, clippings, etc.) written by Hare that could be incorporated into the monograph. It appears, however, this Hare gave that material to his biographer, Cecil Carnes, for the book published in 1940, Jimmy Hare: News Photographer. Furthermore, many Hare photographs that I encountered in the Carnes book and in the illustrated magazine Collier’s are not part of the Ransom Center’s archive. The monograph I had wanted to write will have to wait until the discovery of other parts of Jimmy Hare’s archive.
Although I could not carry out my proposed project, I did find convincing evidence that Jimmy Hare must be considered among the world’s first modern photojournalists. This is an important discovery for scholars of press photography, as we have generally argued that modern photojournalism begins with the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939 and photographers such as Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and the Hermanos Mayo. Modern photojournalism is defined by several elements: the photographs are spontaneous rather than posed; they have been taken in the midst of action and with a small camera that permits the photographer to get in that situation without being exposed to enemy fire; the imagery often contains movement within the frame, either because that actually occurred or because the photographer created it by moving the camera slightly or by leaving the diaphragm open longer than necessary; and the photojournalists are committed to one side rather than being neutral observers. Hare alluded to such imagery in his foreword to the Carnes book: “I want to stress the fact here that what I did was to try to obtain pictures of action in the early days of war photography— not just static group scenes.” Obviously, modern photojournalism required gaining access to the front; the censorship practiced by all the armies engaged in World War I prohibited photographers from taking the pictures Hare and others were able to make in the Cuban-Spanish-American War, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Mexican Revolution.
Working in the Ransom Center allowed me to compare Hare’s imagery of struggles where he obtained access to the front to those he made of the Russo-Japanese War and of World War I, which are largely posed scenes of daily life behind the lines. It also permitted me to contrast his photography with that of another early photojournalist whose archive is found in the Ransom Center, Ernest William Smith, who took pictures of the Boer War in 1899. Smith’s images are almost entirely posed—British troops and Boer rebels stand in front of the camera in groups—or they are taken from a distance, in what might be described as “establishing shots.” I have no idea which camera Smith worked with, but there are no “pictures of action” such as Hare described.
Hare was not the only photojournalist to cover the Cuban-Spanish-American War. John C. Hemment photographed that struggle for Hearst publications, and hundreds of illustrated books were produced to celebrate the U.S. triumph over Spain. Whether Hare can be considered the first modern photojournalist will require work in the archives of individuals such as Hemment. Yet, at this early point in my research, it is clear that Jimmy Hare is certainly among the first modern photojournalists in the world.