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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. 

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.

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

From the Outside In: “Transept of the Crystal Palace,” Benjamin Brecknell Turner, March 1852

By Edgar Walters

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.

 

This image captures the dramatic scale of the Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first international world’s fair. It was the largest glass building at the time, covering 990,000 square feet of Hyde Park in the middle of London, and so tall that it could enclose whole elm trees. The photograph was taken at the end of the exhibition, before the palace was dismantled and rebuilt in the suburb Sydenham, south of the city, as an even grander permanent exhibition space.

 

The Great Exhibition had been envisioned by Prince Albert to show off the wonders of British technology, and the Crystal Palace itself was one of the greatest wonders on show. Designing a building to house the more than 14,000 exhibits of the Exhibition had been a long and difficult process. Until the planning committee accepted Joseph Paxton’s winning design in July 1850, they had rejected every submitted proposal as too expensive to build, in addition to a design that they themselves had created and that had been ridiculed by the press. Paxton was one of the most respected gardeners in the United Kingdom and had ample experience creating large greenhouses. His Crystal Palace design took advantage of a newly invented process for mass-producing sheet glass. Held together by cast iron supports, 900,000 square feet of glass were used to create a modular structure at a cost less than half of many of the other designs. The modular design also allowed Paxton to make changes as needed; the transept in this picture was specially created to enclose a line of elms that otherwise would have been cut down. The final structure was 72 feet wide, more than 1,800 feet (six football fields) long, and up to 100 feet high, but Paxton was able to construct it on budget in only five months, in time for the opening of the exhibition on May 1, 1851.

 

Among its other attractions, the exhibition included one of the first large-scale displays of photographs anywhere in the world: over 700 photographs from six different countries. Photographer Benjamin Brecknell Turner was likely one of the people who saw these photos. In 1852, he photographed the Crystal Palace with a large-field camera, creating some of the most dramatic architectural compositions of the Victorian Age. Turner had gained a license to use William Fox Talbot’s calotype technique in 1849, and he preferred to use this method for all of his large-scale 30 x 40 centimeter paper negatives from then on. With his new camera, he was able to capture the Crystal Palace in striking detail, and he became one of the pioneers of photography’s early era.

 

This image forms a part of the Ransom Center’s Gernsheim collection, which documents the history of photography from the First Photograph (ca. 1826) until the 1960s.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Emilio Englade wrote this post.

 

Image: From the original calotype paper negative of “Transept of the Crystal Palace,” Benjamin Brecknell Turner, March 1852.

From the Outside In: Illustration for Lewis Carroll's "Hiawatha's Photographing," Arthur B. Frost, 1883.

By Edgar Walters

Illustration for Lewis Carroll's "Hiawatha's Photographing."
Illustration for Lewis Carroll's "Hiawatha's Photographing."

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

This he perched upon a tripod—
Crouched beneath its dusky cover—
Stretched his hand enforcing silence—
Said “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.
—from Lewis Carroll, “Hiawatha’s Photographing”

The image etched into the Harry Ransom Center’s windows of a wooden camera with a photographer crouching behind, hand outstretched, is an illustration by Arthur B. Frost for the poem “Hiawatha’s Photographing” by Lewis Carroll. The poem parodies Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (1855), an epic ballad that became popular despite its awkward meter that was often mocked. Although the protagonist in Longfellow’s poem is based on a Native-American hero, Carroll’s Hiawatha is a photographer who arrives at a family’s home and attempts to take each relative’s portrait, yet continually fails because the sitters move too soon and pose too strangely. Hiawatha finally manages to tumble “all the tribe together” and create a photograph in which “the faces all succeed.” But the family members then criticize the image as “the worst and ugliest picture / They could possibly have dreamed of,” and assert that “Really any one would take us / (Any one that did not know us) / For the most unpleasant people!” Carroll satirizes not just vanity in this poem but also the Victorian fad for families to have their pictures taken while adopting poses of affected elegance. Though “Hiawatha’s Photographing” appeared in the magazine Train in about 1857, this illustration did not accompany the poem until its publication within Carroll’s 1883 anthology Rhyme? And Reason?, to which Arthur B. Frost contributed 65 illustrations.

Although Carroll is well known as the author of the beloved Alice books, he was also an accomplished mathematician, logician, and photographer. He was born in Daresbury, Cheshire, England, in 1832, and given the name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He later chose the pen name Lewis Carroll to separate his academic life from his career publishing comedic poetry and nonsense writings. As a mathematics lecturer at Christ Church College, Oxford, between 1855 and 1881, Carroll published reputable works on mathematics and logic, many of which are still valued by scholars today. During the summer of 1856, Carroll adopted the then-burgeoning practice of photography as a hobby. He purchased an Otterwill folding camera, much like the one pictured in the illustration, which used the collodion-plate process and required finesse in timing and technique to produce a successful picture. Although this technique was difficult to master, Carroll produced more than 80 successful albumen-print photographs during his first summer, primarily portraits of his family. With the camera, Carroll had found a real-life “looking glass.” Inspired by Oscar Gustave Rejlander—the first photographer to create art photos comparable to paintings—Carroll settled on the genre of child portraiture. His most frequent subjects were his “child-friends,” many of whom were the daughters of his Oxford colleagues. The most notable of these children were Alice Liddell, who inspired the stories of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin, Carroll’s favorite subject, of whom he created about 50 photographs that spanned her childhood. Carroll carefully organized his photographs into albums to be given as gifts, which he kept within his own personal collection, and as portfolios to display to potential sitters. Although Carroll assembled at least 34 of these albums in his lifetime, only a third of these are known to exist today. Because of Carroll’s gift for putting his subjects at ease, he was able to capture youthful innocence with contented expressions not previously achieved. Biographer Morton N. Cohen claims that “his studies of children reached the apex of the genre in the earliest days of photography and retain their authority today.”

The Ransom Center holds a large collection of Carroll’s photography, with five complete albums and more than 380 photographs. One album, labeled nonchronologically as “Album A (VI),” is believed to contain Carroll’s earliest photographs. Peter C. Bunnell, in his introduction to the book Lewis Carroll: Photographer, refers to this “small and intimate album” as “most likely his first and perhaps intended to be seen only by the Dodgson family and close friends,” and continues that “[t]his album reveals just how quickly [Carroll] was able to grasp and master the complexities of the process as well as compose exceptionally elegant images.” These photographs came to the Center through the acquisition of the Gernsheim collection, whose images document the history of photography from its beginning. The Center’s Warren Weaver collection holds rare editions of Carroll’s books, including two inscribed copies of the 1883 Rhyme? And Reason?, from which this illustration for “Hiawatha’s Photographing” originates. Manuscripts, correspondence, and juvenilia fill out the Center’s Carroll collection. In addition, a large number of items related to Alice in Wonderland are found in the Byron and Susan Sewell collection, which includes translations of the work into 21 languages, as well as parodies and adaptations of the story for television, theater, and film. Viewing Carroll’s photographs, especially in the preserved albums in which he arranged them, provides not only insight into his life’s story and the people with whom he associated, but also an understanding of his talents as an artist outside children’s literature.

Ransom Center volunteer Amy Kristofoletti wrote this post.