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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.

Steps—not dance steps—to digitizing a collection

By Chelsea Weathers

At the recent Texas Conference on Digital Libraries—held last week at The University of Texas at Austin—Ransom Center graduate interns Jordan Mitchell and Emily Roehl and Research Associate Chelsea Weathers delivered a presentation about the Ransom Center’s Fred Fehl dance collection. The poster illustrates the steps of the digitization process, from creating metadata to scanning to image processing.

 

Between 1940 and 1985, New York-based stage photographer Fred Fehl documented more than 50 dance companies and choreographers, including the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. The Ransom Center holds more than 30,000 dance photographs by Fehl, mostly black-and-white, 5 x 7″ prints.

 

Fehl’s work in stage photography was revolutionary at its time. He was among the first stage photographers to take candid photographs using only available light, and he used high-speed film that captured dancers in mid-flight. Fehl photographed performances from the perspective of an audience member in the first row, bringing a new urgency and sensitivity to American stage photography.

 

Digitizing any collection requires numerous steps. Using the Fehl collection as an example, one can see and understand the process  for digitizing an item and making it and accessible online. The collection is one of many digital collections now available on the Ransom Center’s website.

 

At this time, photographs of the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are available on the Ransom Center’s digital collections page. More photographs from the Fred Fehl dance collection will be added as the digitization project progresses.

Scholar explores rich collections of stage photographs

By Gabrielle Inhofe

David S. Shields, the McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina, visited the Ransom Center this year to research the history of theatrical photography in North America.

 

The Ransom Center houses large collections of stage photographs, such as the Ziegfeld photographs, the dance collection, the card photograph collection, and the minstrel show collection.  The collections showcased costumes between 1870 and 1910, the work of William Edward Elcha, Broadway’s only African-American photographer of the early twentieth century, and photographs from several women working in the theatrical portrait trade from 1920 to 1925.

 

Shields’s research at the Ransom Center was supported by the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship in 2013.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

From the Outside In: Walker Evans’s Allie Mae Burroughs, 1936

By Jane Robbins Mize

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.

 

The haunting eyes of Allie Mae Burroughs look straight at us in this photograph taken by Walker Evans in the summer of 1936. Her gaze has a certain resignation, and her mouth doesn’t quite smile. This is the face of a woman old before her time, who has known not only hard work but the realization that her children have gone to bed hungry. Allie Mae Burroughs was 27, a mother of four and the wife of Alabama sharecropper Floyd Burroughs, when Walker Evans photographed her for what would become an iconic image of the Great Depression in the United States. The Burroughs family’s life was chronicled in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans.

 

James Agee was a journalist working for Fortune magazine in 1936 when he was given an assignment to document the lives of poor white Southern farmers. At Agee’s insistence, photographer Walker Evans, finishing up his assignments as a Farm Security Administration photographer, accompanied him to Hale County, Alabama, in July and August of that year. Agee and Evans happened upon three men who had just been told that even under the New Deal programs designed to aid the poor, their families did not qualify for help. The journalists ended up spending weeks documenting the everyday lives of these men and their families through photographs, detailed lists of the contents of their homes, and a text miscellany that includes poems, long reflections, bits of dialog, and a survey response to the Partisan Review.

 

Agee created a portrait of life in the Depression that was too comprehensive for Fortune to publish, and he considered the story too important to be cut and rewritten in a manner that would suit the magazine. It took until 1941 for Agee’s notes and Evans’s photographs to be compiled into a manuscript that was accepted for publication. By that time, however, the war in Europe was reigniting the American economy, and the Depression was no longer a story that interested the public. The first printing of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sold little more than 500 copies. Interest in the text was renewed in the 1960s, however, and today the book is considered not only a great work about the Depression but also a masterpiece of photography and writing.

 

Evans is a celebrated photographer known for the straight-forward elegance of his style and for his study of American culture from the late 1920s to the 1970s. In Looking at Photographs (1973), John Szarkowski, Director of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote: “Evans’s work… was puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual, qualities that seemed more appropriate to a bookkeeper’s ledger than to art. But in time it became clear that [his art] constitutes a personal survey of the interior resources of the American tradition, a survey based on a sensibility that found poetry and complexity where most earlier travelers had found only drab statistics or fairy tales.”

 

The Harry Ransom Center holds the James Agee collection, which includes an original typescript of the book and nearly 300 prints produced by Walker Evans over the course of this project.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Karen White wrote this post

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.

Before and After: World War I–era panoramic photo undergoes conservation before exhibition

By Gabrielle Inhofe

The Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 19141918 features a panoramic group portrait of the 103rd Aero Squadron (Lafayette Escadrille), the first U.S. aviation pursuit squadron in combat in France during World War I.

 

The photograph was sent to the Ransom Center’s conservation lab because it was tightly rolled, making it brittle and fragile.  Previous attempts to unroll the paper had left one corner almost detached.  The only clue as to its contents was a handwritten inscription on the roll’s outermost edge.  Learn more about how photo conservators Barbara Brown and Diana Diaz worked to safely unroll the photograph to preserve it and display it in the exhibition.

 

Image: Eugene O. Goldbeck. Panoramic portrait of the 103rd Aero Squadron (Lafayette Escadrille). ca. 1919.

Ransom Center staff to contribute to new Texas-themed UT Press book series

By Gabrielle Inhofe

The University of Texas Press recently announced the undertaking of the publishing project The Texas Bookshelf, a series of 16 books, with an accompanying website, focusing on all things Texan.  All books are to be written by faculty and staff at The University of Texas at Austin.  The inaugural book, to be released in 2017, will be a history of Texas written by Stephen Harrigan, faculty member at the Michener Center for Writers.  The subsequent books will focus on Texas history, business, culture, art, music, film, politics, and more.

 

Of the contributors, two are affiliated with the Harry Ransom Center.

 

Greg Curtis, Humanities Coordinator at the Ransom Center and Senior Lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin, plans to write a book on the history of Texas literature, with profiles of the lives of Texas writers and critical responses to their work.

 

Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator at the Ransom Center, will be writing and compiling a volume about the evolution and expansion of twentieth-century photography in Texas, which will feature hundreds of significant images created by important photographers and artists who worked throughout the state during that century.

 

Image: Photo of contributors to UT Press series The Texas Bookshelf by Michael O’Brien.