Tonight, J. B. Colson, Professor Emeritus of Journalism and Fellow of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, and Roy Flukinger, Ransom Center Senior Research Curator of Photography, discuss the lives and work of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim at the Ransom Center.
In this video clip from a 1978 interview, Colson asks Helmut Gernsheim about his passion for collecting and his career as a pioneering historian of photography. Helmut and Alison Gernsheim’s efforts significantly contributed to the acceptance of photography as a fine art and as a field worthy of intellectual study. In this clip, Gernsheim discusses how and why he started collecting photography before it became an established practice.
Lewis Carroll is synonymous with Alice in Wonderland, his 1865 novel of nonsensical imagination that cemented his reputation as a visionary author and captured the hearts of children and adults alike. Carroll’s literary creation, immortalized through Disney movies, is well known. What is less known, however, is Carroll’s life as an avid photographer.
Carroll’s forgotten hobby was not rediscovered until 1949, 50 years after his death, when collector Helmut Gernsheim was offered an original album of photographs taken by Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Dodgson, of course, was the same man who published under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Gernsheim poured his energy into discovering more of the photographer, “for quite frankly” as Gernsheim recalled “until then, Lewis Carroll, photographer, had been a stranger to me.”
“I consulted the leading histories of photography and studied the photographic literature of the last century for information,”‘ wrote Gernsheim in his book Lewis Carroll, Photographer. “I sought it with thimbles, I sought it with care, I pursued it with forks and hope, but Dodgson’s name and his pseudonym remained as elusive as the Snark.”
Gernsheim sent his wife to compare the distinctive purple ink and handwriting in the album with Lewis Carroll manuscripts in the British Museum. After a meticulous search, Gernsehim contacted Dodgson’s living descendants, historians, and photographic subjects. The Gernsheims were able to track down and acquire four more albums for their collection, which are now part of the Ransom Center’s collections.
The rediscovery of an essentially forgotten nineteenth-century photographer introduced novel and entirely visual insights of the renowned author and eventually led to Gernsheim’s publication Lewis Carroll, Photographer.
Dodgson pursued photography for 24 years between 1856 and 1880. The album was Dodgson’s chosen medium to present and preserve his photographs of family and friends. Like most photographers of his day, Dodgson used the wet collodion negative processes and the corresponding positive albumen print processes.
The complicated process involved setting up a cumbersome tripod camera and posing the sitter in an aesthetically sensitive manner. Dodgson always took great aims to ensure a relaxed atmosphere, which was not an easy task because posing for extended periods of time tended to produce static, formalized portraits. Next, the photographer would coat and sensitize a plate of glass in a makeshift darkroom. Then, the photographer would quickly transport the light-sensitive “wet plate” to the camera and make an exposure upon it. Finally, he would return to the darkroom to promptly develop and fix the exposure before the plate could dry to complete the negative process.
Dodgson favored the albumen print, which allowed the dried wet collodion negatives to be placed in contact with sensitized paper surface and printed. A binding solution composed of processed egg whites held light-sensitive silver salts onto the coated surface of a thin sheet of paper and resulted in lustrous prints with broad tonal ranges.
Though only a hobby, Dodgson demonstrated genuine skill while utilizing the wet collodion negative processes and the corresponding positive albumen print processes, both of which required patience and dexterity to master. Dodgson’s skill is easily visible in his photographs, which convey a broad range of emotions.
Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator of Photography at the Ransom Center and author of The Gernsheim Collection, discusses the lives of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim and the historical photography collection they amassed and later sold to the Ransom Center in 1963.
Listen to audio clips of Flukinger discussing the hunt for the first photograph, how the Gernsheims began collecting, and the negotiations that led to the sale of their collection.
In conjunction with the exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection, the Ransom Center and the University of Texas Press have published The Gernsheim Collection.
The Gernsheim collection is one of the most important collections of photography in the world. Amassed by the renowned husband-and-wife team of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim between 1945 and 1963, it contains an unparalleled range of images, beginning with the world’s earliest-known photograph from nature, made by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826. The Gernsheim collection includes 35,000 important and representative photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; a research library of some 3,600 books, journals, and published articles; about 250 autographed letters and manuscripts; and more than 200 pieces of early photographic equipment. Its encyclopedic scope—as well as the expertise and taste with which the Gernsheims built the collection—makes the Gernsheim collection one of the world’s premier resources for the study and appreciation of the development of photography.
Published to coincide with the exhibition at the Ransom Center, this volume presents masterpieces of the Gernsheim collection, along with lesser-known images of great historical significance. Arranged in chronological order, this selection effectively constitutes a visual history of photography from its beginnings to the mid-twentieth century. Each full-page image is accompanied by an extensive annotation in which Ransom Center Senior Research Curator of Photography Roy Flukinger describes the photograph’s place in the evolution of photography and also within the Gernsheim collection. Read an excerpt from the introduction in which Flukinger traces the Gernsheims’ passionate careers as collectors and pioneering historians of photography, showing how their untiring efforts significantly contributed to the acceptance of photography as a fine art and as a field worthy of intellectual inquiry.
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.
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.
Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.