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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.

 

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Fellows Find: Jimmy Hare photography collection reveals early photojournalism history

By John Mraz

 

Jimmy Hare. “Revolutionary with bullets.” Undated.
Jimmy Hare. “Revolutionary with bullets.” Undated.

John Mraz is a research professor in the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades “Alfonso Vélez Pliego” of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. He received a fellowship from the David Douglas Duncan Endowment for Photojournalism and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment to study “Jimmy Hare’s Photographs of the Mexican Revolution.”

In 2012, my book Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons was published by the University of Texas Press. The leading combat photographer of that struggle was Jimmy Hare, who brought to Mexico the experience he had acquired in the Cuban-Spanish-American War (1898) and the Russo-Japanese War (1905). The Ransom Center is home to the James H. Hare collection, and, as my book had concentrated on the Mexican photographers (and specifically on determining their commitments to the different factions), I decided to investigate Hare’s photography of the Mexican Revolution in greater depth, with the idea of producing a short monograph on his imagery of that struggle. There are approximately 120 images (largely in the form of lantern slides) in the archive relating to the Mexican Revolution (1911–1917). The great majority of these are of the 1911 battle of Ciudad Juárez, though some ten images of the 1914 U.S. invasion of Veracruz also can be found in this archive.

I had hoped to find new images, especially of the Veracruz invasion, and documents (diaries, field notes, letters, clippings, etc.) written by Hare that could be incorporated into the monograph. It appears, however, this Hare gave that material to his biographer, Cecil Carnes, for the book published in 1940, Jimmy Hare: News Photographer. Furthermore, many Hare photographs that I encountered in the Carnes book and in the illustrated magazine Collier’s are not part of the Ransom Center’s archive. The monograph I had wanted to write will have to wait until the discovery of other parts of Jimmy Hare’s archive.

Although I could not carry out my proposed project, I did find convincing evidence that Jimmy Hare must be considered among the world’s first modern photojournalists. This is an important discovery for scholars of press photography, as we have generally argued that modern photojournalism begins with the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939 and photographers such as Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and the Hermanos Mayo. Modern photojournalism is defined by several elements: the photographs are spontaneous rather than posed; they have been taken in the midst of action and with a small camera that permits the photographer to get in that situation without being exposed to enemy fire; the imagery often contains movement within the frame, either because that actually occurred or because the photographer created it by moving the camera slightly or by leaving the diaphragm open longer than necessary; and the photojournalists are committed to one side rather than being neutral observers. Hare alluded to such imagery in his foreword to the Carnes book: “I want to stress the fact here that what I did was to try to obtain pictures of action in the early days of war photography— not just static group scenes.” Obviously, modern photojournalism required gaining access to the front; the censorship practiced by all the armies engaged in World War I prohibited photographers from taking the pictures Hare and others were able to make in the Cuban-Spanish-American War, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Mexican Revolution.

Working in the Ransom Center allowed me to compare Hare’s imagery of struggles where he obtained access to the front to those he made of the Russo-Japanese War and of World War I, which are largely posed scenes of daily life behind the lines. It also permitted me to contrast his photography with that of another early photojournalist whose archive is found in the Ransom Center, Ernest William Smith, who took pictures of the Boer War in 1899. Smith’s images are almost entirely posed—British troops and Boer rebels stand in front of the camera in groups—or they are taken from a distance, in what might be described as “establishing shots.” I have no idea which camera Smith worked with, but there are no “pictures of action” such as Hare described.

Hare was not the only photojournalist to cover the Cuban-Spanish-American War. John C. Hemment photographed that struggle for Hearst publications, and hundreds of illustrated books were produced to celebrate the U.S. triumph over Spain. Whether Hare can be considered the first modern photojournalist will require work in the archives of individuals such as Hemment. Yet, at this early point in my research, it is clear that Jimmy Hare is certainly among the first modern photojournalists in the world.

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Fellow discusses work on wartime photography collections

Fellows Find: Gloria Swanson biographer discovers rich material in Ransom Center’s archive

By Gabrielle Inhofe

“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” says Norma Desmond in the famous end scene of Sunset Boulevard.  Gloria Swanson, the actress who portrayed Desmond, is ready, as well.  Bowdoin Professor Tricia Welsch received fellowships, which were funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, to conduct research in the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection. The University Press of Mississippi recently published Welsch’s book, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up.  Below, Welsch writes on her time at the Ransom Center.

 

When I took an exploratory trip to the Ransom Center to see if there was enough material to support a biography of Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), I was floored by the breadth and depth of the collection as well as the exceptional helpfulness and insightfulness of the staff.  The Center’s holdings cover Swanson’s personal and professional life, from the first pictures she made in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin in Chicago through her movie stardom and her work in theater, television, radio, publishing, fashion, politics, and health activism.  She lived in New York, California, Rome, London, and Paris.  She traveled widely, and corresponded with everyone from Carol Burnett and Noel Coward to Eleanor Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.  I felt like I hit the biographer’s jackpot every day.

Over the months I spent at the Ransom Center, I saw the records of a fully lived life.  I examined Swanson’s grade school report cards, read the fan mail she received, pored over seven decades’ worth of business correspondence, and looked at thousands of photographs.  Swanson’s contract specified that she was to receive a complete set of film stills from each of her pictures, and they provide a valuable record of many films considered lost today.  Swanson also had a vibrant love life, and there are amazing love letters from her six husbands and her many lovers—including hourly telegrams sent by an enraptured Herbert Marshall.  There is even one surviving love note from her producing partner Joe Kennedy, who left few records of his private affair and preferred that his assistants refer to Swanson in code even in their business papers.

Swanson considered writing her autobiography for decades and made some wire recordings of her memories in the 1950s, which the Ransom Center converted to digital format.  Hearing Swanson talk about her life in her low, thrilling voice—imperious, wry, yearning, and philosophical by turns—was a special pleasure.

I particularly enjoyed one recording where she and her long-time friend actress Lois Wilson reminisced about their early Hollywood escapades—in particular, Swanson’s reputation for scandal: “If I was in a room fully clothed for five minutes with some men, mayhem!  Lois could walk out of a room with a dozen men in a black chiffon nightgown after two hours and they’d say, ‘Oh, somebody must be ill in there.  She’s taking care of them.’”  The peals of laughter throughout their conversation were infectious.

I also heard Swanson’s voice in her extensive correspondence, in the many drafts she prepared of her memoirs, in published interviews, in her TV talk show appearances, and—unexpectedly—in a series of dispatches she wrote for the United Press from Europe in the mid-1950s.  These appeared as twice-weekly syndicated newspaper columns.  In them she wrote about whatever grabbed her: Roman fireworks and French perfume manufacturing, bullfighting, her visit to a camp for Iron Curtain refuges, Princess Grace’s wedding in Monaco.  Swanson called her 117 articles “the hardest and most disciplined work” she ever did.  They chronicle the mid-life adventures of a fascinating woman who was prepared to be fascinated by every new experience.

Swanson called herself a “mental vampire” because she had a voracious appetite for learning of all kinds, and the Swanson collection affirms that.  It is the ideal archive.

The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for the 2014-2015 fellowship program.

 

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Biographer Stephen Michael Shearer uses Gloria Swanson collection to paint a more in-depth portrait of the star in new biography

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Cover of Stephen Michael Shearer’s “Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star.”
Cover of Stephen Michael Shearer’s “Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star.”

Although best known for her role as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gloria Swanson was a legendary actress even before then.  She starred in countless silent films, working with celebrities Cecil DeMille and Charlie Chaplin.  Vivacious and enigmatic, Swanson was known for her extravagant clothing, spending, and love life.

 

In his new biography Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer utilized the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection, which includes personal correspondence, professional contracts, and ephemera.

 

Swanson was not known for being revelatory or reflective, and an interesting quotation from one of Swanson’s 1943 diary entries, held in the Ransom Center’s collection, stands out in Shearer’s book. She writes, “God’s wisdom finds no solace, no satisfaction in sin, since God has sentenced sinners to suffer.”  This introspective quote is at a discord with her usual attitude of rarely expressing remorse, whether for her inveterate spending and debts or the many hearts she broke.

 

Swanson also worked hard to gloss over anything negative and to cultivate an image of perpetual stardom. Her dramatic and charismatic persona was always on display, drawing men and women alike to her. “Swanson was drenched in her concept of her own allure and femininity,” said Shearer.  Swanson’s carefully crafted autobiography Swanson on Swanson reflects this tendency to conceal the negative aspects of her life and showcase her greatness, but holdings such as this diary entry help paint a portrait of Swanson that goes beyond Norma Desmond and Swanson on Swanson.