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From the Outside In: Two portraits of James Joyce

By Alicia Dietrich

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. Below, Ransom Center volunteer Karen White writes about two portraits of James Joyce on the windows.

 

The windows of the Harry Ransom Center show two drawings of James Joyce, one by Desmond Harmsworth and one by Wyndham Lewis, depicting very different sides of the famous writer. The Lewis drawing, dated 1920, shows a portrait of Joyce from the outside: head down, identifiable by the thick eyeglasses and small beard. Lewis was one of Joyce’s Modernist contemporaries—a novelist, experimental artist, and founder of the abstract art movement Vorticism. He was also a well-known curmudgeon and critic, and his sketch hints at the distance from which he approached his fellow artist. Harmsworth, in contrast, was one of Joyce’s publishers and enjoyed long evenings talking and drinking with the writer. His drawing expresses more of Joyce’s personal character.

 

Modernist author James Joyce is known for his experiments with stream-of-consciousness writing, especially in his most controversial novel, Ulysses. Joyce was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1882, into a large and no longer prosperous family. His literary interests and abilities were recognized when he was young, and he was educated in Jesuit schools and at University College Dublin, where he studied English, French, and Italian. Joyce enjoyed learning languages, especially when they added to his perspective on art; for instance, he admired playwright Henrik Ibsen, so he learned Norwegian to read Ibsen’s original texts. At Joyce’s death, he knew more than 17 languages, including Arabic, Sanskrit, and Greek. Joyce left Ireland in 1904 and made only four return visits, the last in 1912. He taught English in Trieste for a number of years, moved to Zurich during World War I, and then went to Paris, from which he and his family fled the Nazis in 1940 to return to Zurich. Despite leaving Ireland as a young man, Dublin society continued to be the backdrop for all of Joyce’s work, including the story collection Dubliners and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake.

 

Ulysses provides an in-depth perspective on life in Dublin at the beginning of the twentieth century, told through the thoughts and perceptions of a number of its citizens over one day, June 16, 1904, and in a kaleidoscope of styles. As Joyce commented to a friend, he wanted “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” This included aspects of life that until then had not been seen as fit for literature, from a trip to the outhouse to a voyeuristic encounter at the beach. The book was initially published in serial form in the journal The Little Review, but in 1921 it was banned in the United States for obscenity. Sylvia Beach published a complete edition of Ulysses in Paris in 1922, but it remained banned in the United States until 1933, although copies were smuggled in, and the book was widely known. When the American edition was published, the response was sometimes fierce. A reviewer in The New York Times commented that “the average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it” and that its narrative fashion was “in parodies of classic prose and current slang, in perversions of sacred literature… in symbols so occult and mystic that only the initiated and profoundly versed can understand.” When Joyce died in January 1941, the Times obituary stated that his status as a writer “never could be determined in his lifetime” and quoted critics who held a range of views. One placed him among the “Unintelligibles,” with Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot; another argued that Ulysses was a novel “which only could have been written ‘in an advanced stage of psychic disintegration;'” and a third hailed Joyce as one of “the great innovators of literature… whose influence upon other writers of his time was incalculable.” Today, the latter assessment is the one that prevails.

 

The Harry Ransom Center has collected all of Joyce’s works in depth, including four of the first 100 signed copies of Ulysses. It also has Joyce’s own Trieste library, which was formed between 1900 and 1920, comprising 673 volumes and including many source books used in his writing.

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

 

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.