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Seminar exposes students to the Ransom Center’s photography holdings

By Ady Wetegrove

Dr. Sherre L. Paris, a lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin's School of Journalism, teaches the class “A Cultural History of Photography” at the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
Dr. Sherre L. Paris, a lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin's School of Journalism, teaches the class “A Cultural History of Photography” at the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.

Dr. Sherre L. Paris—lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism—teaches graduate and undergraduate students in her class “A Cultural History of Photography” at the Ransom Center. During the three-hour-long-seminar, which meets every Tuesday in a classroom adjacent to the Ransom Center’s Reading Room, students work with primary source materials from the Center’s photography collections. Cultural Compass spoke with Dr. Paris about her experience teaching at the Ransom Center.

How does a class at the Ransom Center differ from one in a traditional classroom setting?

My understanding of a “traditional” classroom setting, as concerning environment and structure, is a lecture hall, where students sit in desks and the instructor presents a lecture.  Our class, however, is designed as a seminar, which includes illustrated lectures, assigned readings, presentations of student responses to the readings, looking at and discussing photographs, and viewing primary materials.  We learn not only about iconic photographs and famous photographers, but also about the methods and context of invention and process, and the uses and purposes of photography within culture and society. This inquiry finds substance in the unique materials available at the Ransom Center.

How did you choose to hold this class at the Ransom Center?

I did not have to choose it.  Professor J. B. Colson, former head of the Photojournalism Department, recognized the value of using the Ransom Center materials, specifically the Gernsheim collection, in the 1970s. Colson was the first teacher of photojournalism in the country to design and incorporate courses in the history of photography, first into undergraduate photojournalism curricula, and then expanding the courses to include graduate seminars in theory and criticism.  Because Colson had rare and unique access to the Gernsheim collection, he took his own slides of the materials before they were cataloged. As a result, his students saw slides of the primary sources, not slides from reproductions in books. As soon as was possible, I think in the late 1990s, the graduate seminars were held at the Ransom Center, and students were required to use primary sources for their research.  Other teachers of variations of this class, and many students, have benefited from Colson’s precedent.

How does holding class at the Ransom Center enhance the undergraduate experience?

Given that our room immediately connects to the Reading Room where scholars and researchers work, our class is conducted in an atmosphere that lends credence to the study of the humanities. During this time when liberal arts education, particularly in the humanities, is under scrutiny, the Ransom Center’s world-class resources in literature, poetry, art, and photography can more than adequately justify the importance of that education and thus undergird and validate undergraduate pursuit. The Ransom Center is a place where hunger for that beautiful kind of learning that is difficult to quantify can be both whetted and satisfied.

Around what specific collections and materials do you focus the curriculum of “A Cultural History of Photography” (J387G)?

We use primarily the foundational Gernsheim collection for nineteenth- and early to mid-twentieth century photography, and then later additions. We use everything we can that is relevant to the course.

In what ways do the students engage with the Ransom Center’s materials?

Each class allows for the viewing of primary sources directly related to the topics at hand.  The seminar table and the viewing shelves display materials on the side of the room. Students can use the white cotton gloves and turn the pages of Julia Margaret Cameron’s album of original wet collodian prints, or look at Walker Evans’s prints from “Now Let Us Praise Famous Men,” to a portfolio of Danny Lyon’s civil rights work. As part of their course work, they are required to use the primary sources for research papers and presentations.

Does J387G focus solely on visual materials, or does the course also incorporate written materials?

The course incorporates written materials.  We look at manuscripts or archival written materials relevant to the visuals we study. We also consider many works that integrate text and image. Examples include Peter Henry Emerson’s “Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads,” a beautiful album of his platinotypes and poetic writings, John Thomson’s images in “Street Life in London” with Adophe Smith’s advocacy journalism, and James Agee’s manuscripts for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” We also examine the literature of photography pertaining to our topics: technical writings, autobiographical and biographical writings, contemporary criticism, news and magazine articles, etc.

What do you think your students glean from exposure to primary source materials?

It’s a kind of truth that only primary sources impart.  This object that they can see and touch (with white gloves!) was created and exists in real time and space.  To use the cliché, history comes alive.

Students learn that the precursor to the camera was the camera obscura. They see the earliest engravings illustrating the camera obscura and then look through a real nineteenth-century camera obscura.

Then there is the dramatic difference between the viewing and handling of the original object, and the second-hand, vicarious experience of seeing versions of the work in books or online.  One gets no idea of the size or actual color or texture. The exquisite loveliness of a Hill and Adamson calotype or Emerson’s platinotypes cannot be reproduced.

In addition, there is the learning about the individual(s) who made the objects, and an awareness of the society and/or culture in which they were made. When students hold, and turn a daguerreotype just right to see the incomparable detail on its finely polished, mirror surface, only then can they begin to relate to the sensation, the transformation in visual consciousness, and the resultant “daguerreotypemania.”

Frank Luther Mott, Dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri in the 1940’s, wrote that there were 3 reasons people studied history:

•      There are those who are devoted to history for history’s sake.  To them the rightness of the record is the thing most to be desired.

•      There are others who are interested in history because they find the men and women of the past and the conditions under which they lived quaint and strange, while many of the incidents of an older time seem as interesting as fiction.

•      And there are those of a third class who look to history mainly for help in understanding present problems and for guidance in facing the future.

Given the changes and challenges presented by the digital era, I hope, through their experience with primary sources, students can glean an understanding of the place of photography in the history of human communication systems that may help them to understand its place in the future. I hope it all adds up to an experience that enriches beyond a semester’s duration.

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