Navigate / search

Errol Morris book highlights photos from Ransom Center's collections

By Kelsey McKinney

Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" with cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" with cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" without cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" without cannonballs. 1855.

Writer and filmmaker Errol Morris, winner of an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, an Emmy, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival, drew on the Ransom Center’s photography collections for his most recent book, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, published by Penguin in September 2011.

Morris’s interest in the mysteries of photography grew around the debate over two nearly identical Roger Fenton photographs in the Ransom Center’s collections.  The photographs were taken in sequence in a place called the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” during the Crimean War.

In one photo, the road through the valley is bare and the ditches full of cannonballs. In the other, the road is scattered with cannonballs. The photographs were taken on April 23, 1855, between 3 and 5 p.m., but photography scholars debate which photograph was taken first. The discrepancy between the images inevitably leads to a question of Fenton’s involvement. In which photograph did Fenton manipulate the scene?

Morris’s interest led him to Crimea to investigate. He borrowed a cannonball, found the valley, and came to a conclusion that caused him to question whether we can, 150 years later, recover the truth of Fenton’s intentions. Morris wrote extensively about this adventure for The New York Times.

Through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” photographs and a few others, Morris reveals how much of a photograph can be obscured by the viewer’s beliefs. A photographic detective story, Believing is Seeing is an exploration of the origins, intentions, and products of photographers.

Related content:

Fighting Heat, Dust, and Glare: Roger Fenton and the first photographic documentation during the Crimean War

Fellow discusses work on wartime photography collections

"Believing is Seeing: Ovservations on the Mysteries of Photography" (Penguin Press, 2011).
"Believing is Seeing: Ovservations on the Mysteries of Photography" (Penguin Press, 2011).

'Arnold Newman: Masterclass' Opens in Berlin

By Jennifer Tisdale

Arnold Newman. 'Pablo Picasso, France, 1954.' Arnold Newman/Getty Images.
Arnold Newman. 'Pablo Picasso, France, 1954.' Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

Organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP) in collaboration with the Harry Ransom Center, the exhibition Arnold Newman: Masterclass explores the career of Arnold Newman, one of the finest portrait photographers of the twentieth century.

The exhibition opens March 3 in Germany at C|O Berlin, and the Ransom Center will host the exhibition’s first U.S. showing in February 2013.

This exhibition tour was created under the auspices of the American nonprofit organization FEP. The show highlights 200 framed vintage prints, covering Newman’s career, from the Arnold Newman Foundation archive and the collections of major American museums and private collectors. Twenty-eight photographs from the Ransom Center’s Newman collection are featured in the exhibition.

A bold modernist with a superb sense of compositional geometry, Newman is known for a crisp, spare style that cleverly situates his subjects in context. Artists delighted in sitting for Newman, knowing that he would find a way to convey their sensibility in dramatic, but always appropriate, fashion. Though Newman is celebrated today for his great portraiture, his still lifes, architectural studies, and earliest portraits, often of anonymous people in the street, are far less known, though they can well compare with the best in these genres.

The exhibition takes stock of the entire range of Newman’s photographic art, showing many fine prints for the first time.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

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.

Lindsay Barras, a volunteer in the conservation department, helps construct a “pizza box” to hold an oversized book that is being repaired in the book lab.  Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Lindsay Barras, a volunteer in the conservation department, helps construct a “pizza box” to hold an oversized book that is being repaired in the book lab. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Volunteer Michel McCabe-Hughes organizes slides in the photography collection. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Volunteer Michel McCabe-Hughes organizes slides in the photography collection. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Graduate intern Arcadia Falcone searches the souvenir program collection for items. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Graduate intern Arcadia Falcone searches the souvenir program collection for items. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.

"The Gernsheim Collection" Earns Recognition

By Alicia Dietrich

"The Gernsheim Collection" (UT Press, 2010).
"The Gernsheim Collection" (UT Press, 2010).

[/caption]

The Gernsheim Collection, co-published by the Harry Ransom Center and the University of Texas Press, has been awarded an Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award, which honors a distinguished catalog in the history of art published during the past year.

Edited by Ransom Center Senior Research Curator Roy Flukinger, The Gernsheim Collection coincided with the Ransom Center’s 2010 exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection, which explored the history of photography through the Center’s foundational photography 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 book includes more than 125 full-page plates from the collection accompanied by extensive annotations in which Flukinger describes each image’s place in the evolution of photography and within the collection.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

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.

Preparator Wyndell Faulk installs a video screen in the galleries for the upcoming exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” which opens February 28. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Preparator Wyndell Faulk installs a video screen in the galleries for the upcoming exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” which opens February 28. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Marianne Fulton, a consultant who will be contributing to a book on photographer Arnold Newman, orders photographs for the project. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Marianne Fulton, a consultant who will be contributing to a book on photographer Arnold Newman, orders photographs for the project. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.

Book chronicles “Postcards From America” road trip with Magnum photographers

By Elana Estrin

In May 2011, five Magnum photographers and one writer hopped on an R.V. at the Harry Ransom Center and launched a two-week road trip from Texas to California.

1,750 miles and thousands of photographs later, the result of the “Postcards from America” road trip is a limited-edition book that was released this week. The book is actually a collection of 18 items enclosed in a box signed by the itinerant photographers—Paolo Pellegrin, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky—and writer Ginger Strand: a book, five bumper stickers, a newspaper, two fold-outs, three cards, a poster, and five zines. According to the “Postcards From America” Tumblr, these items “combine to represent the idiosyncratically American character that defines this project.”

More information and pictures from the book are available on the “Postcards From America” website.

A selection of prints from the road trip will be added to the Magnum Photos collection, housed at the Center. The Ransom Center is pleased to participate in this documentary event, an outgrowth of the Center’s relationship with the Magnum Photos collective. In 2010 the Ransom Center joined in partnership with Magnum Photos and MSD Capital, LP to house 200,000 original press prints from Magnum’s New York bureau. The Ransom Center has since created a preliminary inventory and opened the collection for research to students, faculty, and the general public. The Ransom Center continues to work with Magnum, including the Magnum Foundation, to add further research value to the collection.

“The Ransom Center was the perfect place for us to start this trip,” photographer Susan Meiselas, President of the Magnum Cultural Foundation, told Cultural Compass. “Our picture distribution system, represented by the New York press print library that’s now housed at the Center, was part of the glue that historically held us together as a collective. In a post-analog age, we’re exploring new ways of being together collectively, and this trip was one of those experiments. We really saw how the Ransom Center could be a bridge between the old and the new. I hope we’ll keep doing more new projects together because I really believe in the importance of linking the archival materials to a living body of new production carried out with the same relentlessly curious spirit.”

Watch photographer Alec Soth lead a video introduction to the box set.

In the coming weeks, stay tuned for a follow-up blog post featuring a selection of prints from the road trip that will be added to the Magnum Photos collection at the Ransom Center.

Choose your favorite Elliott Erwitt photograph for the chance to win a copy of "Sequentially Yours"

By Jennifer Tisdale

While visiting the Harry Ransom Center in September 2011, Elliott Erwitt noted that “a good photograph is pretty obvious. It tells you a story very quickly. When it works, that is a good photograph.”

The more than 280 photos of 90 sequences in Erwitt’s new book Sequentially Yours (teNeues, 2011) certainly meet that qualification.

Visit the Ransom Center’s Facebook page to pick your favorite Elliott Erwitt photo for the chance to win a copy of Sequentially Yours.

Publisher teNeues describes Sequentially Yours as Erwitt presenting “a sense of vignettes, each showing a sequence of photographs shot just moments apart. Gifted storyteller that he is, Erwitt gives you a sense of what happens next, the end point being sometimes comic, sometimes poignant, and often with a wink.”

In his more than 60 years as a working photographer, Erwitt has shot iconic images of historical figures and celebrities as well as photographs of ordinary people and everyday occurrences. Sequences in the book reveal a couple’s unsuccessful efforts to close their beach umbrella in windy weather, the interactions of the cast on the film set of The Misfits (1961), and other actions and events.

“In Sequentially Yours, Elliott has created a new form, somewhere between single exposures and film,” writes Marshall Brickman in the foreword. He describes Erwitt as having “… an affection for empty spaces, places where his subjects have been or will be in a moment, or for things or people who just disappear.”

Erwitt has remarked that taking good pictures requires visual sense, including a sense of composition and design. Erwitt’s other essential is curiosity, which is evident in these sequences.

Erwitt is the author of more than 20 photography books, including Photographs and Anti-photographs (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1972), Personal Exposures (WW Norton & Company, 1989), Personal Best (teNeues, 2006), and Elliott Erwitt’s Paris (teNeues, 2010).

The archive of photographer Elliott Erwitt, which includes more than 50,000 signed photographic prints, is housed at the Ransom Center. The Erwitt materials are currently being prepared for public access.

An iconic photographic moment with Spalding Gray

By Alicia Dietrich

Who was Spalding Gray?

Fans have debated this question for years, as Gray was a pioneer in blurring the line between real life and theater in his autobiographical and often very personal monologues. He left audiences wondering how much of the stage persona was the real Gray and how much was Gray the performer.

Photographer Ann Rhoney captured the real Spalding Gray at home in his Wooster Street loft in New York City on an August day in 1990. He wasn’t wearing his usual plaid shirt. He wasn’t sitting behind a desk with a notebook and props. He was sitting comfortably at home in his grandmother’s chair and having a conversation with a new friend.

***

Rhoney splits her time between New York and the West Coast, and after a photo shoot in San Francisco the previous day, she took a red-eye flight to New York City to meet Gray and photograph him for a portrait assignment related to his forthcoming monologue Monster in a Box.

She described Gray as affable but somewhat meek and reserved when she arrived. He was wearing a shirt with a color somewhere between green and gold. “He may have pressed it himself,” Rhoney notes. “He appeared to be rather dressed up for that hour of the morning.”

As she started chatting with him and asking questions to try to get him to relax and open up for the session, he told her about the piece he was working on—a monologue that would become Gray’s Anatomy, which chronicled Gray’s medical problems with his eyes.

“Then all of the sudden, he started going into character, in a way,” Rhoney noticed. “That’s when a great moment happened.”

Gray dramatically described going to a medicine man in Niagara Falls to seek treatment for his eyes, as if he wanted to impress his new audience. Rhoney’s uncharacteristically blunt response?

“Oh, you fool!”

Rhoney describes Gray’s shock at her response: “His eyes opened in wide surprise and bewilderment. He jumped back, as if ‘What are you saying to me?’”

Then Rhoney explained that she was born and raised in Niagara Falls with a familial heritage of a funeral home in close proximity to an Indian reservation.

“He lit up,” she said.

The ice had been broken, and from then on, Rhoney had Gray’s full attention. Gray peppered her with questions as she did her light meter readings and prepared for the shoot, loading her Hasselblad camera.

Conversation flowed, and the result was 271 frames of Gray in what Rhoney says is, essentially, a still-life movie. “It’s a portrait of a soul with a range of every human emotion in this session of 15 rolls.”

“To get a successful portrait, you have to enter into an honest exchange with the person so that their spirit, their personal landscape emerges. You have to put them at ease and put yourself in their place.”

Rhoney spoke about how people are unable to see themselves, but once in a while—”every once in a blue moon”—a person can look at a photograph and recognize oneself.

“I always try to get that photograph where the person will say, ‘That’s me,’” she said.

The Ransom Center recently acquired two images from that session, one with an animated Gray using his hands for full effect and a second, quieter image of Gray midthought. Gray’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and recently opened for research.

“He completely offered me and my camera—even though at times he thought the camera got in the way of the conversation—an honest openness throughout the session,” she said. “He moved differently than he did on stage. It was as if I had a private performance. Yet it was not a performance at all. He was giving me his spirit.”

As Rhoney studied the images, she kept coming back to the hands in the first image. Though she’s looked at the photo hundreds of times, she made yet another discovery.

“Think about a palm reader, and if you look at the palm on his left, how poignant and beautiful that is. It’s as if he left us with his hand imprint,” she said. After a pause, she continued, “Especially the left palm. The detail on that? If everyone wants a road map to Spalding, there it is.”

As Rhoney studied the second image, she thought more about how he interacted with audiences.

“There’s a stillness. Yet you can see his thought process in motion,” she said.”We know him as talking to an audience, but I believe when he talked to the audience, he talked to everyone individually, even though he couldn’t see their faces. There’s something about this image where he’s talking to me behind the camera. That’s how he really, truly regarded his audiences—as a collective whole of individuals.”

The Gray archive contains no photos, so Rhoney’s portraits give scholars an additional lens through which to view Gray and his work.

“I’d like the photos to be a window into who he was,” Rhoney said. “Hopefully, this leads the scholars into seeing him with fresh eyes. As a photographer, I feel lucky to show him in a form of reality. This is who he was and is. A photograph is the truth and a scholarly document at its finest.”

Rhoney said this photo session led to a strong friendship, and Gray often told her how much he loved the photograph with the hand detail Rhoney loved. As she studied her photos and her contact sheets, she laughed often as she recalled details from the shoot and their conversation.

“The man can really still, in his own way, jump off the contact sheet and make one laugh,” she said. “He’s not here anymore, but they leave us with a whisper, an echo of who he is.”

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

 

Fellows Find: Implicating History: Susan Meiselas and the Trafficking of Photographs about Nicaragua

By Erina Duganne

 

‘Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979′ by Susan Meiselas.
‘Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979′ by Susan Meiselas.

Erina Duganne, Assistant Professor of Art History at Texas State University, visited the Ransom Center on a Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship for a month during the summer of 2011 to review photographs by Susan Meiselas in the Magnum Photos collection. This research relates to her forthcoming book that examines the act of bearing witness in photography from the 1970s through the 1990s. She is also presenting her findings on Meiselas at the annual conference of the Association of American Studies. The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for 2012-2013 fellowships. Duganne discusses her research here.

For this fellowship, I closely examined press photographs in the Magnum Photos collection that Susan Meiselas took of the insurrection that occurred in Nicaragua in the late 1970s. My interest in these images was twofold. I sought to determine how these photographs were trafficked in print media, as well as how Meiselas responded to these uses through her 1981 book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979 and her 1982 exhibition Mediations.

To facilitate this research, I first organized Meiselas’s Nicaragua photographs according to the story index number that was, in most cases, found on the recto of the images. Next I located the actual newspapers and magazines that published these photographs so that I could compare which images from a particular story were in fact published and how they were captioned. I then compared how Meiselas used photographs from the same stories in her book Nicaragua and in her exhibition Mediations. Through these comparisons, I sought to determine the historically specific ways in which Meiselas’s Nicaragua photographs were distributed by Magnum Photos, used by the print media, and then recontextualized by Meiselas herself. In so doing, my aim is to suggest not only how Meiselas responded to this trafficking of her photographs, but more importantly, how she attempted to use these two projects to make viewers as well as herself implicit in the histories to which these photographs and their circulation bear witness.

Ransom Center acquires collection of contemporary tintypes

By Kelsey McKinney

The Ransom Center recently acquired ten tintype images from photographer Robb Kendrick. Tintype printing is a historical photo technique that was used primarily during the nineteenth century. The tintypes acquired are each handmade and one-of-a-kind.

The acquired tintypes vary in subject matter from portraits to landscapes to cacti. Several of Kendrick’s photographs were taken on location for National Geographic, and many were taken for personal projects.  Kendrick’s most recent wet-plate work documented the working cowboy for the December 2007 issue of National Geographic. The photographs were taken in 14 western states, Mexico, and Canada.  These photographs were then collected in the critically acclaimed book Revealing Character.

Kendrick’s documentary photography regularly appears in National Geographic, but he also frequently works with wet-plate photography. Kendrick currently splits time between Austin and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with his wife and two sons.

 

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