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From blue skies to blue print: Astronomer John Herschel’s invention of the cyanotype

By Courtney Reed

For Sir John Herschel, science and art were inextricably linked. Son of the celebrated astronomer William Herschel—who, with the discovery of the planet Uranus, revolutionized the modern day conception of the universe—science was in John Herschel’s blood. Following in his father’s footsteps, Herschel himself became a renowned astronomer. Herschel also applied scientific exploration to art and participated in some of photography’s earliest experimentation.

An accomplished chemist, Herschel discovered the action of hyposulfite of soda on silver salts, which lead to the use of “hypo” as the most effective fixing agent for silver-based photography. Herschel also endorsed and encouraged the term “photography” and coined the terms “negative” and “positive” to refer to photographic images.

John Herschel not only searched the dark blue skies, but also searched for ways to introduce color into photography. A child of Newtonian science, Herschel knew that white light is composed of the color spectrum. The trick was to separate the white light and pinpoint specific colors: “By using the prism first to separate all but the pure prismatic tint of given refrangibility and then re-analyzing this by media I conceive it possible to obtain rays totally exempt from any colour but the elementary one wanted” Herschel theorized in a letter, dated July 6, 1839, to Henry F. Talbot, another scientist interested in experimental photography.

During his quest for color, Herschel carefully documented his experiments with hundreds of variations of chemical formulas, using engravings as source imagery to create negatives on paper. In 1842, Herschel invented the cyanotype.

The cyanotype process uses light-sensitive iron salts produced by brushing solutions of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, also known as Prussian blue, onto paper, which is then dried in the dark. Cyanotypes were not widely used until 1880, when they became popular because they required only water for fixing the image.

The cyanotype is one of Herschel’s most influential contributions to the art of photography. Not only does it lend itself to strikingly beautiful photos, but the cyanotype is also the originator of the architect blue-print.

One of Herschel’s cyanotypes is featured in the exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection. Closing in just a few weeks, the exhibition can be seen in the Ransom Center Galleries on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours until 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays. Free docent-led tours of the Gernsheim exhibition are offered at 2 p.m. on this Saturday and Sunday.

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

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

By Courtney Reed

In 1950 photography collector Helmut Gernsheim managed to track down a descendant of photographer Roger Fenton and scored one of the greatest coups of his career: Fenton’s own complete set of Crimean War photographs for a grand total of £50. After closing the deal in the owner’s Farnborough garage, Gernsheim loaded the prints into the trunk of his car and referred to the purchase as “quite a haul.” In 1954, Gernsheim published a book about the 360 mounted salt print photographs of the Crimea that he had purchased from Fenton’s heir.

The Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856, was fought mainly on the Crimean Peninsula and was where Florence Nightengale pioneered modern nursing practices. France allied with Turkey and Britain against the Russian Empire in a dispute over the declining Ottoman Empire territories and the authority of the Roman Catholic Church over the Russian Orthodox Church in Palestine.

According to Gernsheim, what made the Crimean War so interesting was that “in many respects, it was the last of the old wars, with dandy officers, purchasable commissions and mortar balls; in others, it is the first of modern war, with telegraphic communication, supply railway, efficient nursing and field kitchen and the first to be covered by photographers and newspaper reporters.”

Fenton took up photography in 1851, and by 1852 he was instrumental in founding the Photographic Society of London. For the next few years, Fenton photographed everything from items in the British Museum to the Royal Family.

From 1854 to 1855, under the patronage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Fenton photographed in the Crimea, where Great Britain was fighting an unpopular war against the Russians. In a joint venture between the Crown and the Manchester publisher Agnew & Sons, Fenton said that the images from his photographic campaign were “intended to illustrate faithfully the scenery of the camps; to display prominent incidents of military life, as well as to perpetuate the portraits of those distinguished officers, English and French, who have taken part in the ever memorable Siege of Sebastopol.”

Though the purpose of Fenton’s images was to realistically exhibit the Crimean War to the British public, Victorian standards discouraged Fenton from photographing the ghastly ravages of war.

Another restriction was the extended exposure times of the wet collodion process, which made photographing active combat impossible. Thus, Fenton relied upon posed images of soldiers and views of a battle’s destructive aftermath to convey the atmosphere of war.

Taking 36 cases of photography equipment, Fenton used a large van as a home base. Fenton equipped the pantechnicon with a cooking area, a living/sleeping area, and a dark room. Despite its utility, the van’s cumbersome size and light color made it an easy target for the Russians. Consequently, the van came under fire several times.

Painted on the van, in large black letters, were the words “photographic van.” As pictures were rare at the time, people inevitably flocked to the van requesting photographs to send home.

In addition to dealing with warfare, crowds, and the technical parameters of collodion photography, the intense heat and dusty terrain further complicated snapping photographs in the Crimea.

“As soon as the van door was closed to commence the preparation of the plate, perspiration started from every pore, and the sense of relief was great when it was possible to open the door to breathe even the hot air outside,” Fenton wrote in a letter that was quoted in Gernsheim’s book Roger Fenton: Photographer of the Crimean War:  His Photographs and his Letters from the Crimea.

Fenton managed to avoid the many dangers of being on location in the Crimea, but by June 1855, Fenton’s luck ran out, and he contracted cholera. He started his journey home and had recovered by the time he reached England. There, he presented his photographs in private audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and was even allowed to lie on the couch due to his delicate condition.

Despite the countless challenges, Fenton managed to produce the first photographic documentation of war in his more than 350 images of the Crimea.

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

Tonight: "The Lives and Work of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim"

By Courtney Reed

Cover of ‘The Gernsheim Collection’
Cover of ‘The Gernsheim Collection’

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.

This event will be webcast live and is held in conjunction with the exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection, on display through January 2, and the release of the book The Gernsheim Collection. A book signing of The Gernsheim Collection follows.

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.

Through Lewis Carroll’s Looking Glass

By Courtney Reed

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.

 

Before and After: A Henry Peach Robinson photograph

By Alicia Dietrich

Before: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.
Before: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.

After: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.
After: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.

“Before and After” goes behind the scenes with the the Ransom Center’s conservation department. The most recent installment highlighted work that Head of Photograph Conservation Barbara Brown completed on the Henry Peach Robinson photograph “Bringing Home the May,” taken ca. 1862–1863.

Learn more about how the photograph was repaired and re-mounted.

Some of Robinson’s work is on view in the current exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.

Research at the Ransom Center: The travels of photojournalist David Douglas Duncan

By Alicia Dietrich

David Douglas Duncan. 'Aramcovid  derrick at Abqaiq. Bedouin caravan to oblivion.' Saudi Arabia, 1947.
David Douglas Duncan. 'Aramcovid derrick at Abqaiq. Bedouin caravan to oblivion.' Saudi Arabia, 1947.
Katherine Slusher, an art curator and writer based in Barcelona was a David Douglas Duncan Fellow at the Ransom Center in 2009. She writes about her research in the Duncan collection, which documents his travels all over the world as a photojournalist.

Slusher’s article highlights Duncan’s extensive travels to the Florida Everglades, the Caribbean, South America, Central America, Afghanistan, Egypt, Persia, and Turkey as he captured iconic images for such publications as LIFE Magazine.

The Ransom Center annually awards more than 50 fellowships to support scholarly research projects that require on-site use of its collections. The Center is receiving applications for its 2011-2012 fellowships in the humanities.

Listen to audio clips about the Gernsheim photography collection

By Alicia Dietrich

Unidentified Photographer. Helmut and Alison Gernsheim hanging an exhibition at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. 1963.
Unidentified Photographer. Helmut and Alison Gernsheim hanging an exhibition at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. 1963.
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.

Watch a slideshow of images from "Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection"

By Alicia Dietrich

The exhibition, Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection, is on display at the Ransom Center through January 2. View a sampling of images from the show in the below slideshow.

Please click on thumbnails for larger images.

Read an excerpt from "The Gernsheim Collection"

By Alicia Dietrich

The Gernsheim Collection
The Gernsheim 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.

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