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Meet the Staff: Diana Diaz Cañas, Photograph Conservator

By Marlene Renz

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Diana has a Bachelor of Arts in Conservation from Bogotá, Colombia and she specialized in Photograph conservation in Mexico City, Mexico. She has worked in private workshops and labs and came to the Ransom Center following her work at the Frida Kahlo Museum and the National School for Conservation (ENCRyM) both in Mexico City.

 

What do you like best about your job?

I like the fact that we can actually touch the objects and handle them carefully but with confidence. Usually when you go to a museum, you are not allowed to touch anything, you are only allowed to see and be very careful. In conservation, while performing a treatment, it is usually necessary to handle the objects to take care of them. This allow us to better understand the materiality of the object.

 

What is your favorite item that has come through your office?

I was very lucky when I first arrived because the “First Photograph” was coming back from an exhibition in Germany. The case needed some maintenance after the exhibition, so it was brought to us at the Photograph Conservation Lab, and I had the chance to view the photograph outside of its case and look at it closely to check its condition. It was amazing.

 

What was your most challenging project?

In Mexico City, I worked on a huge collage with photographs from the end of the nineteenth century. It was a commemoration of Mexico’s independence, with portraits of independence heroes as well as politicians and diplomats of the time. It measures approximately 8 x 10 feet and has more than 700 photographs. It had several structural problems that needed attention and became very complicated due to the size and the mixture of materials in the collage, and it was a lot of work to treat each photograph, one by one. Here at the Ransom Center, I worked on very tightly rolled panoramas that needed to be flattened for the World War I exhibition. The work was delicate and complicated, especially because the paper was brittle and had some tears that needed mending.

 

What is the most useful tool in your profession?

For everyday use, the microscope and the spatula are the most helpful tools for identification and treatment of photographs. Equipment used to perform scientific analysis is also very useful and helps us to better understand the chemical composition of the objects and works of art we work with. It is very important for us to first identify the photographic technique of every print or negative that comes to the lab before performing any treatment, as this determines how fragile a photograph might be. For example, some photographs are more sensitive to light, while others are more sensitive to handling. Identifying photographic techniques also allows us to choose appropriate conservation treatments.

 

Does your Spanish proficiency aid you in your work?

Sometimes, especially because of Texas’s strong connection with Latin American culture. Many archives are from native Spanish speakers, and others have Spanish inscriptions. My language skills help me understand some details about the objects, and are sometimes helpful when interacting with patrons interested in the Ransom Center’s collections.

 

What drew you to photo conservation?

My father, who was a photographer and filmmaker, first influenced me. I used to see him filming and taking pictures, and then I played with his cameras. When I started in conservation, I liked working with paper, so my first job was as a paper conservator in an archive where photographs started to be more and more common. I was asked to survey a new collection that had an important number of photographic materials, and at that moment I realized I did not really know how to talk about the materiality of photographs or their decay with time. I realized that I didn’t know much, but I wanted to. That curiosity and my father’s influence were what helped me decide to work in this field.

 

You worked in the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City. What did you like most about working there?

It was great to learn about her as an artist, but also as a person by seeing her pictures. Her father was a renowned photographer, so there is a large collection of family photographs, together with images of her in bed after one of several operations, with an apparatus installed in the bed that held a canvas and allowed her to paint while recovering. Others show the work in progress of some of her most important paintings. There are also photographs with or from other artists and friends of Frida such as Nickolas Muray and Diego Rivera. These pictures show an intimate part of her life that nobody had seen before and have an incredible value for researchers and scholars.

 

When Frida died, Diego locked up her personal effects and other belongings, including unfinished paintings, in bathrooms at the Blue House that had been converted into storerooms. Diego entrusted the archive to his friend Dolores Olmedo, with the instruction to keep it locked until 15 years after his death, but Dolores decided to keep it locked until after her own death. So 50 years passed before the storage rooms were opened and the museum was able to process Frida’s personal archive and establish conservation needs and exhibitions. I feel very fortunate to have contributed to the preservation of her archive.

 

There’s a Frida Kahlo portrait at the Ransom Center.

It’s remarkable that we have it here. The painting is one of her most important pieces. Actually, I had the chance to courier it back to the Ransom Center. It was featured in an exhibition that highlighted surreal artists, and I had the chance to return it to the museum when the exhibition ended. I think it’s another favorite from the collections for me.

 

What do you like to do outside of work?

I like to read and dance a lot, go to the gym and exercise, go out with friends, and go to the movies.

 

What type of dancing do you do?

Everything! If it is informal, I like to salsa and merengue or dance to other Latin music, but I used to do contemporary dance and ballet.

 

What was the last movie you saw?

I saw Wish I Was Here with Zach Braff.

 

What is your favorite place in Austin to spend your day off?

I like so many places in Austin: around the lake, downtown. Areas surroundings Austin, like Enchanted Rock, are beautiful, and Barton Springs, of course, in the summer.

 

Do you have a favorite contemporary photographer or a favorite gallery in Austin?

I like very much the work of the photographer Alec Soth. The Ransom Center organized a pop-up show recently; I especially like his “Paris/Minesota” project. On the subject of galleries, I like The Contemporary Austin.

 

 

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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.

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New websites for the Gutenberg Bible and the First Photograph

By Alicia Dietrich

Page from new First Photograph web exhibition.
Page from new First Photograph web exhibition.

The Ransom Center launched updated websites for its two permanent exhibitions, the Gutenberg Bible and the First Photograph. The websites contain information, interactive components, and content geared toward children related to each exhibition.

The Gutenberg Bible is the first substantial book printed from movable type on a printing press. It was printed in Johann Gutenberg’s shop in Mainz, Germany, between 1450 and 1455. View a video demonstrating Gutenberg’s printing process.

Gutenberg’s invention revolutionized the distribution of knowledge by making it possible to produce many accurate copies of a single work in a relatively short amount of time. View a map that shows the spread of printing after Gutenberg.

Visitors can turn the pages of the Gutenberg Bible, view the pages in high-resolution, and browse by Books of the Bible or page characteristics, including famous passages, illuminations, and watermarks.

The Ransom Center holds one of five complete copies in the United States. View a map of where the other Gutenberg Bibles are housed.

The First Photograph, which Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce produced in 1826, is the foundation of the Ransom Center’s photography collection. The 8 x 6.5-inch heliograph depicts a view just outside the workroom window of Niépce’s estate in Le Gras in east central France.

Website visitors can watch an animated video showing how the First Photograph was made as well as create a virtual heliograph of themselves using a webcam; the virtual heliograph image replicates the photographic technique used to create the First Photograph.

The website offers content geared for younger visitors, including digital coloring pages of the Gutenberg Bible and First Photograph and the opportunity to use Gutenberg’s process to print their own message.

The website was made possible through a generous gift by Margaret Hight.

Photo Friday

By Alicia Dietrich

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Mary Alice Harper, head of photography and art cataloging, shares new David Douglas Duncan materials with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Mary Alice Harper, head of photography and art cataloging, shares new David Douglas Duncan materials with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Undergraduate intern Rachel Platis selects photographs for a forthcoming exhibition. Photo by Pete Smith.
Undergraduate intern Rachel Platis selects photographs for a forthcoming exhibition. Photo by Pete Smith.
Visiting educators learn about the history of the King James Bible during Saturday's teacher workshop. Photo by Lisa Pulsifer.
Visiting educators learn about the history of the King James Bible during Saturday's teacher workshop. Photo by Lisa Pulsifer.
Multimedia Coordinator Lee Tran videotapes the First Photograph for an ongoing kiosk project. Photo by Daniel Zmud.
Multimedia Coordinator Lee Tran videotapes the First Photograph for an ongoing kiosk project. Photo by Daniel Zmud.

View video of "Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection"

By Christine Lee

The exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection opens today at the Ransom Center.

Drawn from the peerless collection of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, the exhibition features masterpieces from photography’s first 150 years, alongside other images that, while lesser known, are integral to the medium’s history. Highlights include the first photograph (on permanent display at the Ransom Center); works by nineteenth-century masters such as Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Henry Peach Robinson; and iconic images by modern photographers such as Man Ray, Edward Weston, Robert Capa, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The Harry Ransom Center will celebrate the opening of the exhibition with “A Picture Perfect Evening” on Friday, September 10th from 6 to 8 p.m. The event is free for Ransom Center members or $20 for non-members. Tickets can be purchased in advance on the website or at the door. The event will feature exhibition tours, refreshments, a photo booth, and make-and-take photo keepsakes with The Wondercraft.

Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection
Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection

Only two weekends left to see "Making Movies" and "¡Viva! Mexico’s Independence"

By Alicia Dietrich

Costumes in the Ransom Center's 'Making Movies' exhibition. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Costumes in the Ransom Center's 'Making Movies' exhibition. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The Harry Ransom Center’s exhibitions Making Movies and ¡Viva! Mexico’s Independence close Sunday, August 1.

Featuring items from the Ransom Center’s extensive film collections, Making Movies reveals the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process and focuses on how the artists involved—from writers to directors, actors to cinematographers—transform the written word into moving image.

If you can’t visit the exhibition before it closes, view a video interview with Associate Curator of Film Steve Wilson discussing how the Ransom Center’s holdings document the history of the motion picture industry.

¡Viva! Mexico’s Independence showcases materials from the Ransom Center’s collections including the 1529 document appointing Hernán Cortés Captain General of New Spain; unpublished letters exchanged between Ferdinand Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, and his wife Carlotta; documentary photographs of the Mexican Revolution; and period broadsides illustrated by José Guadalupe Posada. The year 2010 marks the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, pivotal events in Mexico’s struggle for self-governance.

Free docent-led tours of the exhibitions are offered Tuesdays at noon and Saturdays at 2 p.m. through the end of the exhibition.

The permanent exhibitions, the Gutenberg Bible and the First Photograph, remain on display in the lobby. A new exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection opens in the galleries on Tuesday, September 7.

The galleries are open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours on Thursday evenings to 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays. Admission is free.

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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