Navigate / search

The first photograph gets a check-up

By Elana Estrin

In 1952, photohistorian Helmut Gernsheim rediscovered the first photograph lying forgotten in a trunk, 125 years after Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the famous image. “I held the foundation stone of photography in my hand,” Gernsheim recalled. “I felt myself in communication with Niépce. ‘Your nightmare existence in a trunk is over,’ I thought. ‘At long last you will be recognized as the inventor of photography.’”

Today, the first photograph is on permanent display in the Ransom Center’s lobby. In 2002, the Ransom Center and the Getty Conservation Institute began a collaborative conservation project for the first photograph. Dr. Shin Maekawa, Senior Scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, designed an oxygen-free display case to protect the heliograph from potential oxygen-induced deterioration. Both institutions regularly monitor conditions in the display case through a website, which logs oxygen, pressure, relative humidity, and temperature.

Maekawa returned to Austin in March to teach Ransom Center Photograph Conservator Barbara Brown how to maintain the case.

“We’ve been working on maintenance for the oxygen-free case in which the photograph is housed and presented,” Brown said. “This is something that needs to be done periodically. There have been no problems, but it’s always good to double-check the sensors every couple of years to make sure everything is running the way it’s supposed to.”

In addition to assisting Brown with maintenance, Maekawa also came to help the Ransom Center determine whether or not the first photograph could possibly tour.

“When you take a sealed case into an airplane, there’s a lot of pressure acting on the case. So the idea is [to find out] whether we can transport the case or not, and how we can go about it. Since I designed the case, being here will give me a better idea of exactly what other issues there are to consider. The main issue is to maybe build a special container for traveling,” Maekawa said.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

Web exhibition explores costume designs for stage and screen by B. J. Simmons & Co.

By Alicia Dietrich

The web exhibition A Tonic to the Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B. J. Simmons & Co., which highlights the work of the British theatrical costumier company from 1889 to 1959, is now live on the Ransom Center’s website. Founded in 1857, Simmons & Co. dominated costume preparation in London for more than 100 years.

The web exhibition highlights the immense scope of the Simmons & Co. archive and is intended to encourage research in the collection. The exhibition is organized into 10 categories of costume design and showcases 228 selected images drawn from 60 film and theater productions. The Web exhibition was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The Ransom Center acquired the voluminous archive of B. J. Simmons & Co. in two separate installments in 1983 and 1987. Comprising more than 500 boxes, the collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world.

From its founding in 1857 to its demise in 1964, Simmons & Co. created stage costumes for hundreds of theater productions in London, the provinces and overseas, ranging from Victorian pantomime to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s. Simmons & Co. also provided costumes for more than 100 films, including features directed by Alexander Korda and Laurence Olivier.

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

Biographer discusses researching Somerset Maugham biography

By Alicia Dietrich

Biographer discusses researching Somerset Maugham biography
Biographer discusses researching Somerset Maugham biography
Writer and journalist Selina Hastings is the author of four literary biographies, including The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, which was released today in the United States.

Hastings recently wrote an article for Ransom Edition about her work in the Ransom Center’s collections and the “uneasy friendship” between Maugham and Hugh Walpole.

Hastings is a terrific storyteller, and you can listen to audio of her talking about the challenges she faced in researching Maugham. In a case of being in the perfect place at the perfect time, Hastings was the first scholar to be granted access to Maugham’s papers by the Royal Literary Fund.

At the Ransom Center, Hastings conducted research as a Mellon Fellow in 2002–2003 and was awarded the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies in 2009–2010. She has previously worked in the Ransom Center’s collections for her biographies on Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and Rosamond Lehmann. She is currently working on a biography of Sybille Bedford.

More than 60 research fellowships awarded

By Jennifer Tisdale

The locations of the 2010-11 fellowship recipients. ©Rand McNally Map. Click on map to enlarge.
The locations of the 2010-11 fellowship recipients. ©Rand McNally Map. Click on map to enlarge.

The Ransom Center has awarded more than 60 research fellowships for 2010–11.

The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, film, photography, art and performing arts materials.

The scholars, almost half of whom will be coming from abroad, will use Ransom Center materials to support projects with such titles as “William Faulkner’s Early Career: A Chronology,” “Cogs in the Dream Machine: Jack Harris and the Role of ‘Still Men’ in Promoting Hollywood Cinema,” “Jimmy Hare and the Beginnings of Photojournalism” and “Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles.”

The fellowships range from one to three months in duration, offering funds of $3,000 per month. Travel stipends and dissertation fellowships are also awarded. All fellows, with the exception of those selected for dissertation fellowships, are post-doctorates or independent scholars with a substantial record of scholarly achievement.

Medieval and early modern manuscripts collection now accessible online

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has launched an online database for its medieval and early modern manuscripts collection. The database includes more than 7,000 digital images and can be accessed via the Ransom Center’s website.

The medieval and early modern manuscripts collection contains 215 items dating from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries. It comprises items from various collections, including those of George Atherton Aitken, W. H. Crain, Carlton Lake, Edward A. Parsons, Sir Thomas Phillipps, Walter Emile Van Wijk, Evelyn Waugh, John Henry Wrenn and others.

The Ransom Center is in the process of digitizing all of the collection items, which will be added to the database as they are completed. At present, digital images are available for 27 of the items for a current total of 7,288 pages.

The database contains item-level descriptions for all 215 items, and the collection is searchable by keyword and any combination of the following categories: name, country of origin, century, language, format (such as charters or diaries), subject, and physical features (such as musical notation or wax seals).

 

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

 

A new home for "Finnegans Wehg"

By Alicia Dietrich

A German translation of James Joyce's 'Finnegans Wehg' ('Finnegans Wake'). Photo by Pete Smith.
A German translation of James Joyce's 'Finnegans Wehg' ('Finnegans Wake'). Photo by Pete Smith.

Walter Wetzels, an emeritus professor in the Department of Germanic Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, recently donated a German translation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to the Ransom Center. He shares a bit of his history with the text.

It must be more than 50 years ago after reading my first novel in English (that was Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel) that I very ambitiously tried the famous and feared James Joyce. And, of all things, I chose Finnegans Wake. Little did I know what to expect, and—predictably—it turned out to be a disaster. I felt completely defeated and asked myself whether the English that I had learned in school and Joyce’s version were the same language. I gave up. Much later, in the mid 1990s, I heard that some audacious person had translated the work into German. I bought the tome hoping to finally understand it in my native tongue. Of course, the “translation” turned out to be just as impenetrable to me as the original had been. Defeated again— and for good this time—the book ended up on one of my shelves where it has rested, untouched, ever since.

It was not until 2010, when I started to tackle the problem of thinning my library, that the only sensible solution for my ancient struggles occurred to me: the Harry Ransom Center.

I am gladly passing the work on to more competent and determined minds.

No wire hangers: Costumes in Robert De Niro collection receive a set of custom padded hangers

By Elana Estrin

In a scene from the 1995 film Heat, Robert De Niro storms into Ashley Judd’s hotel room, grills her for answers, and knocks a line of wire hangers off the rack. According to Ashley Judd, detail-oriented director Michael Mann chose those particular metal hangers for just the right visual and sound effect.

The Ransom Center also carefully selected hangers specifically for the costumes of Robert De Niro, whose film archive resides at the Ransom Center. Last October, the Ransom Center’s preservation lab constructed 100 custom-made hangers for heavy coats and jackets in the De Niro collection.

“Robert De Niro had a lot of large, heavy coats. For one film, for example, he could have five full-length leather jackets. We had to have something that would be very sturdy and also very good for the textile,” says Apryl Voskamp, Preservation Housings Manager.

Before acquiring De Niro’s collection, the Ransom Center had few costumes to house and could afford the space to store the costumes in the ideal environment: lying flat and in the dark. But with thousands of costumes arriving in the De Niro collection, Helen Adair, Associate Curator for Performing Arts, and Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, inspected the costumes and deemed some costumes appropriate for hanging storage, including many of the jackets.

“It takes less space to store things hanging,” says conservator Mary Baughman. “Things like the leather jackets are pretty tough as long as they’re out of the light.”

The challenge was to find or make padded hangers appropriate for De Niro’s jackets.

“We didn’t have any hangers here that would work,” Baughman says. “Some of the De Niro costumes are pretty heavy, and the hangers we had here were too flimsy. And we couldn’t find a commercially made hanger that would work. There are a lot of archival quality hangers out there for your wedding dress, but for a big, heavy leather coat, not so much.”

The range of costumes worn by De Niro’s varied film personae created some unique circumstances for the team. For example, a large, heavy canvas coat worn by the swashbuckling, cross-dressing pirate Captain Shakespeare in Stardust (2007) was treated by the wardrobe department to look weathered and beaten by the elements. This distinctive costume “got an even more macho hanger,” according to Baughman.

Other costumes selected to hang include full-length jumpsuits worn by De Niro’s jewel thief in The Score (2001), as well as the jumpsuits worn by his stunt double. The suits bear burn holes from the blowtorch used by De Niro’s character to break open a safe.

The preservation team also decided not to hang certain jackets. For example, De Niro’s characters get shot, burned, or injured in many of his films, and Voskamp and Baughman were worried about hanging bloody jackets, many of them still sticky.

“I learned that fake blood is an industry secret,” Voskamp says. “Studios don’t want to divulge their recipe because they think it’s the best. It would be helpful to know what’s in the fake blood to know if it will damage other items, but that’s very difficult to figure out. So we decided to isolate these costumes and house them lying flat to make sure the fake blood doesn’t migrate onto other materials.”

Baughman is the mastermind behind the design. She searched for just the right hanger, eventually choosing a sturdy long-necked stainless steel hanger to serve as the main frame. The next step was to construct shoulder supports to cover the metal hanger which would prevent the metal from distorting the garment’s original shape.

“We didn’t want to have this sharp edged metal hanger up against the cloth of the garment. It would’ve left a mark in the garment. After a few years, the fibers will break along those creases,” Baughman says.

Baughman designed the shoulder supports out of lignin-free board. For decades, “lig-free” board has been used to create a variety of custom archival containers at the Ransom Center. Each piece of lignin-free board had to be cut, creased, and tied with twill tape to simulate the shape of human shoulders. The final component of the hanger was a padded cloth covering to go over the shoulder support. Each cloth covering has three parts: two cloth sides and a long cloth tube filled with polyester batting.

It took a team of seven—including Voskamp, Baughman, University of Texas work-study student Liz Phan, and four volunteers—one month to complete the project, spending the entire month exclusively making hangers. Each hanger took an hour and a half to construct for a total of 262 hours. For the Ransom Center’s preservation team, it’s worth getting hung up on the details.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Doctoral theses of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss acquired by the Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

Major and minor doctoral theses manuscripts by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Photo by Pete Smith.
Major and minor doctoral theses manuscripts by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Photo by Pete Smith.
The Ransom Center has acquired the manuscripts of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s major and minor doctoral theses. The typed theses, annotated with handwritten corrections, were presented by Lévi-Strauss at the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1948 upon completion of his doctorate in humanities. Lévi-Strauss’s major thesis, “Les structures élémentaires de la parenté,” was published in English as “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” in 1949. In the thesis, he proposed the “alliance theory,” a structuralist model for the anthropological study of relations and kinship. His minor thesis, “La vie familiale et sociale des indiens Nambikwara” (“The Family and Social Life of the Nambikwara Indians”), is an ethnography of an indigenous group of the Brazilian Amazon.

Frequently referred to as the father of modern anthropology and structuralism, Lévi-Strauss is known for works such as A World on the Wane (1955), The Savage Mind (1962) and the four-volume Mythologiques series, completed in 1971.

Explore Books of Hours at the Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

Hours of the Virgin. Matins. Annunciation.
Hours of the Virgin. Matins. Annunciation.
Pestilence, famine, war, and death: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were close companions to life in the fourteenth century. The Church was compromised by political corruption and worldliness, and the pope resided not in Rome but at Avignon, where he remained a virtual pawn to the king of France. During this calamitous phase of European history, a devotional text called the Book of Hours emerged as a medieval bestseller. Ten of these volumes reside in the Harry Ransom Center collections. Learn more about Books of Hours in the first of a three-part series on Books of Hours.

Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporaries: Photographs from the Collections of the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton Museum of Art

By Alicia Dietrich

Manuel Álvarez Bravo 'Señor de Papantia' ('Man from Papantia'), 1934-35
Manuel Álvarez Bravo 'Señor de Papantia' ('Man from Papantia'), 1934-35
The Blanton Museum of Art’s current exhibition Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporaries features works from the Ransom Center’s photography collections. Blanton Associate Curator of Latin American Art Ursula Davila-Villa discusses the life and work of Álvarez Bravo.

One of the most fascinating aspects of photography is how images change the way we look at the ordinary in the world. Manuel Álvarez Bravo, a master in transforming the everyday into extraordinary images, worked during one of the most important and transformative periods in the history of Mexico. He was a prolific photographer who lived for 100 years. During the 1930s and 1940s, his photographs laid bare a city that saw rapid urban changes that reshaped the face of Mexico. Álvarez Bravo’s unique vision is characterized by intimate scenes that fused local and international artistic developments such as geometric abstraction and surrealism. In 1929, Edward Weston wrote to Álvarez Bravo: “photography’s fortunate in having someone with your viewpoint.”

Their relationship would later develop into a friendship that also included Tina Modotti. The three photographers would work in Mexico and document a country that would capture their minds and hearts. When Modotti was deported from Mexico due to her political activities, she gave Álvarez Bravo her Graflex camera as a gift. It was Modotti who introduced Álvarez Bravo to Eugène Atget’s work, which would become an important influence for Álvarez Bravo.

The exhibition Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporaries: Photographs from the Collections of the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton Museum of Art, on view at the Blanton Museum through August 1, features iconic images by Álvarez Bravo and his contemporaries (including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Walker Evans, and Edward Weston) drawn from the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton’s collections.