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Fellows Find: Women behind the camera in and beyond the studio

Press pass for British photojournalist Christina Broom. 1910.
Press pass for British photojournalist Christina Broom. 1910.

Margaret Denny received a Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship to conduct research in the Ransom Center’s Gernsheim collection. Below she shares some of her findings at the Ransom Center.

During the past decade, I have conducted primary research on Victorian women in photography, an investigation that culminated in my dissertation From Commerce to Art: American Women Photographers 1850–1900 (University of Illinois at Chicago, 2010).

My current project For Love and Money: Victorian women photographers in and beyond the studio follows a select group of nineteenth-century American and British women photographers operating in the commercial realm of advertising, photojournalism, studio portraiture, and travel photography. The importance of this investigation is that current scholarship on the history of photography has diminished the importance of commercial work; it likewise has overlooked women in the commercial sphere.

With a fellowship at the Ransom Center, I have progressed closer to realizing my project as a publication. In pondering this experience, several impressions stand out—the Center as a rich repository of photographs and ephemeral materials, and, co-equal, the Center’s proficient staff members and systems that provide a stimulating, nurturing, and collegial environment in which to explore one’s topic. Through the proficient and patient stewardship of Emilio Banda and suggestions proposed by Senior Research Curator Roy Flukinger and Associate Curator of Photography Linda Briscoe Myers, I was able to navigate smoothly through box upon box of photographs, biographical material, and memorabilia. Even the tradition of weekly coffees and a brown bag lunch for fellows offers scholars and staff opportunities to exchange insights and information.

The Gernsheim collection of Victorian and Edwardian photography amassed by Helmut and Allison Gernsheim in England at the end of World War II and purchased by the Harry Ransom Center in 1963 became the focus for this study. The collection holdings present a rich glimpse into elite British society through the studio portrait practice of Alice Hughes. I viewed the wealth and breadth of photographs made by Hughes at the turn of the twentieth century in her London studio. Having researched Hughes at the National Portrait Gallery in London, it was beneficial to evaluate this expansive number of photographs to build on my earlier inquiry.

Another chronicler of Britain’s elites, Kate Pragnell operated commercially in London in the 1890s. The Center’s illustrated article on Pragnell showed her photography in more of its original context. The fact that Pragnell hired only women workers in her studio and wrote about her practice makes her an interesting case study.  These British women will be compared with the American photographers Frances Benjamin Johnston and Gertrude Käsebier as they shared the experience of being middle- to upper-class women who chose photography as a vocation. To investigate the media treatment of American and British women photographers, I reviewed issues of The Photogram published in England between 1894 and 1905 by American Catharine Weed Barnes Ward and her British husband H. Snowden Ward. Likewise, as a comparison to understanding opinions emanating from other journals of photography, I examined the issues of Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work, published from 1903 to 1917.

Equally germane to my investigation, the Center’s holdings contain over 350 photographs by British photojournalist Christina Broom. A documentarian of Edwardian fame, Broom photographed important British events from military maneuvers to Royal pageantry, most printed as picture postcards, a business that supported her family facing the loss of household income after her husband’s accident. In my project, Broom will be compared to Frances Benjamin Johnston, who operated as a photojournalist working with Bain News Service in America. Johnston’s assignments took her to Naples, Italy, where she photographed Admiral Dewey and his U.S.S. Olympia crew following their successful campaign in the Philippines during the Spanish American War. Equally notable, Johnston was the last photographer to photograph President McKinley, 17 minutes before his assassination in 1901.

As a seasoned researcher at a number of institutional archives, I feel the time spent at the Ransom Center put me in a more positive position to take my findings to publication. Because the staff made research suggestions beyond my original itinerary, I will be able to incorporate even more information in the study. As I continue to research the topic of women photographers of the Victorian Era into the Edwardian period, my larger goal is to develop the information into book format supported by a traveling exhibition. Having the opportunity to conduct research at the Ransom Center and to develop the narrative of women in the commercial realm of photography places me one step closer toward the realization of this major undertaking.

TIME's LightBox lists 'Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews' as one of photobooks of the year

LightBox, TIME’s photography blog, included the anthology Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews (University of Texas Press, 2012) as one of its “2012 photobooks of the year.”

Jessica S. McDonald, the Ransom Center’s Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography, edited the anthology, which provided the first comprehensive overview of Lyons’s career as one of the most important voices in American photography.

In anticipation of Lyons’s November 8, 2012, visit to the Ransom Center, McDonald shared insight about the photographer, curator, and educator.

Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews is available online through University of Texas Press.

Conversation and book signing with photographer Nathan Lyons

Cover of "Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews" (UT Press, 2012), edited by Jessica McDonald.
Cover of "Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews" (UT Press, 2012), edited by Jessica McDonald.

Jessica S. McDonald, the Ransom Center’s Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography, speaks with photographer, curator, and educator Nathan Lyons about his career and role in the expansion of American photography on this Thursday, November 8, at 7 p.m.

McDonald edited the anthology Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews (UT Press, 2012), which provides the first comprehensive overview of Lyons’s career as one of the most important voices in American photography. Below, McDonald shares insight about Lyons.

A relative newcomer to the arts and humanities, photography’s history is still largely uncharted, contested, and complex. The full impact of major figures on the development of this young field, especially during the American “photo boom” of the 1960s and 1970s, has not yet been accounted for. The historical complexity of this era became especially fascinating to me during my tenure in the Department of Photographs at George Eastman House, the museum of photography and film in Rochester, New York, that was a key center of creative and intellectual activity when few other museums collected photographs.

In Rochester I met Nathan Lyons, a figure who has had an inestimable impact on the history of photography in the United States and its expansion over the last five decades. As a curator at Eastman House in the 1960s, Lyons organized some of the most groundbreaking and ambitious exhibitions of the time, and he later founded the Visual Studies Workshop, an independent arts organization and graduate program that trained the next generation of photographers, critics, curators, and historians. Lyons played a role in founding many of photography’s important organizations, including the Society for Photographic Education, and consistently advocated for photographers to funding agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts. All the while he was an active photographer, exhibiting his work at nearly every major U. S. museum and publishing several volumes of his own photographs, including Notations in Passing (1974) and Riding 1st Class on the Titanic! (1999).

In 2008 I began formally researching his role in American photography, and with his cooperation—including generous access to his files and countless interviews—I put together a volume of his photographs and writings. Lyons will join me in conversation at the Harry Ransom Center this Thursday to celebrate the publication of Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews, published this year by UT Press. The presentation will combine photographs representing Lyons’s artistic development with a discussion of his pivotal essays and lectures. We will also consider contributions from important scholars in the field who have written on Lyons’s work as an artist, his influence as a curator, and his widespread impact as an educator. A book signing follows.

The program will be webcast live Thursday starting at 7 p.m. CST.

New book “Masterclass: Arnold Newman” is released today

In February 2013, the Harry Ransom Center will host the first U.S. showing of the exhibition Arnold Newman: Masterclass, a posthumous retrospective of photographer Arnold Newman (1918–2006).

The exhibition was organized by the American nonprofit organization Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP) in collaboration with the Ransom Center. The show, curated by FEP’s William Ewing, highlights 200 framed vintage prints spanning Newman’s career, selected from the privately held Arnold Newman Archive and the collections of major American museums and private collectors. Twenty-eight photographs from the Ransom Center’s Newman archive are featured in the exhibition.

Newman’s subjects included world leaders, authors, artists, musicians, and scientists—Pablo Picasso in his studio; Igor Stravinsky sitting at the piano; Truman Capote lounging on his sofa; and Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, in the attic where his family hid from the Nazis for more than two years.

Complementing the exhibition is Ewing’s Masterclass: Arnold Newman (Thames & Hudson Inc., New York), which pays homage to Newman and includes more than 200 photographs, four essays, and short biographies of Newman’s sitters. Essay contributors include Ewing; David Coleman, director of the Witliff Collections at Texas State University and former curator of photography at the Ransom Center; and Arthur Ollman, professor at San Diego State University and curator of many exhibitions produced in collaboration with Newman.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal’sPhoto-Op: Chair Man” highlighted the book with Newman’s photo of Charles Eames in his studio.

First Photograph to travel to Europe for first time in 50 years

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's 'View from the Window at Le Gras' c. 1826. Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's 'View from the Window at Le Gras' c. 1826. Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum.

The First Photograph will be loaned, along with 119 other images and photography-related items from the Harry Ransom Center’s Gernsheim collection, to the Reiss Englehorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany, for the exhibition “The Birth of Photography-Highlights of the Helmut Gernsheim Collection.” The exhibition runs from September 9 through January 6, 2013.

The First Photograph has been removed from display at the Ransom Center to be prepared for its departure in July. The First Photograph will be back on display at the Ransom Center in February 2013.

The First Photograph was acquired by the Ransom Center as part of the Gernsheim collection from Helmut and Alison Gernsheim in 1963. Taken in 1826 or 1827, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras depicts the view from an upstairs window at Niépce’s estate, Le Gras, which is in the Burgundy region of France. Niépce’s photograph represents the foundation of today’s photography, film, and other media arts.

The First Photograph forms the cornerstone of Helmut Gernsheim’s photographic collection, which was the largest in the world when the Ransom Center acquired it in 1963. The Gernsheim collection is one of the seminal collections in the United States of the history of photography and contains an unparalleled range of more than 35,000 images. Its encyclopedic scope—as well as the expertise with which the Gernsheims assembled the collection — makes the Gernsheim collection one of the world’s premier sources for the study and appreciation of photography

In 2002, the Forum International Photographie at the Reiss Engelhorn Museum acquired Gernsheim’s later collection of contemporary photography, along with his own photographs and archive. For the first time in half a century, major portions of both Gernsheim collections are being reunited: the historical material housed in the Ransom Center and the contemporary collection in the Forum International Photographie at the Reiss Engelhorn Museum.

While the First Photograph is on loan, the photographic print View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826, 2009 by Adam Schreiber will occupy the display in the Ransom Center’s lobby. The photograph depicts the Niepce plate in situ in the museum display, as photographed by Schreiber in 2009. Schreiber is a member of the Lakes Were Rivers artist collective, a group of artists who work primarily in photography and video. In summer 2013, the Ransom Center will host an exhibition in which members of the collective will display their original works paired with Ransom Center collection material that inspired them.

Ransom Center appoints Chief Curator of Photography

Jessica S. McDonald. © Caren Alpert Photography.
Jessica S. McDonald. © Caren Alpert Photography.

The Ransom Center has appointed Jessica S. McDonald, a curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as its new chief curator of photography. McDonald begins her position at the Ransom Center in September.

As the Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography, McDonald will oversee a collection that spans from the world’s earliest-known photograph to prints from some of the great masters of the twenty-first century. The Center’s photography holdings include the Helmut and Alison Gernsheim collection, a seminal collection of the history of photography and one of the world’s premier sources for the study and appreciation of photography.

In addition to the history of photography, the Ransom Center’s photography collection focuses on photojournalism and documentary photography, with holdings of more than 5 million prints and negatives, supplemented by books, manuscripts, journals, and memorabilia of photographers.

“McDonald’s broad experiences —  from teaching to curatorial — confirmed that she can lead our photography department, build the collection, support research, and plan exhibitions,” said Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. “The possibilities under her guidance are exciting.”

McDonald’s professional experience includes affiliations with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Visual Studies Workshop and George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. In 2011, McDonald received an Ansel Adams Research Fellowship from the Center for Creative Photography.

McDonald recently curated the exhibition Photography in Mexico: Selected Works from the Collections of SFMOMA and Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser and edited the anthology Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews, which University of Texas Press published in June.

Fellows Find: Scholar studies the Sandinista revolution and the Contra War through the lenses of photojournalists

Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Front and back of press print “Nicaragua: 1978” from Magnum Photos collection.
Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Front and back of press print “Nicaragua: 1978” from Magnum Photos collection.

Ileana Selejan, Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, recently spent time in the Magnum Photos collection with a dissertation fellowship from the Ransom Center. Selejan’s work focuses on aesthetics in war photography and protest art at the turn of the 1980s, specifically on the Sandinista revolution, the counter revolutionary war in Nicaragua.

The primary resource I consulted while in residency at the Harry Ransom Center between October and November 2011 was the Magnum Photos collection. I was interested in photographs taken in Nicaragua during the 1978–1979 Sandinista revolution and the subsequent Contra War until circa 1989, and I mainly looked at work by Susan Meiselas, Larry Towell, Abbas, and Chris Steele-Perkins. Some key questions guided my research: What constituted the “subject” for each of these photographers? How are the Sandinistas portrayed? How well documented was the counter-revolutionary side? Is there documentation of combat? How comprehensive is it? What are the main differences between work done before, during, and after the revolution? How are the victims of the war portrayed? Broader questions having to do with authorship, subjectivity, and the role of the photographer, as both outside observer and “concerned” witness, were at the core of heated debates that divided the photographic community in the 1980s. Politics and ethics, as the long war in Nicaragua proved, were hard to separate from the photographic records. The complexity of the images produced in this period is furthered with the introduction of a discussion of aesthetics.

For instance, the use of color in Susan Meiselas’s photographs from the revolution (published first in the press and later in 1981 as a group of 72 images in her seminal book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979) was one of the most innovative aspects of the period. Yet throughout the eighties, other Magnum photographers working in Nicaragua—Abbas, Larry Towell, and Chris Steele-Perkins—chose to stay with the rather traditional war photography aesthetic, established by earlier generations of war photographers, from Robert Capa to Henri Cartier Bresson. This style was certainly not exclusively a Magnum feature, since the majority of the photographers working in Nicaragua, local and international correspondents alike, chose black and white over color.

For at least a few years, Nicaragua became a powerful, highly controversial subject in U.S. politics and media. It cast a looming shadow over the Reagan administration throughout most of its years in power. Especially as the war in El Salvador escalated in parallel to the war in Nicaragua, many human rights workers, volunteers, journalists, and writers became involved in one way or another with the repercussions of the wars in the whole region. The violence was documented in detail, both in images and in writing. Even so, a large part of these conflicts remained unseen, forgotten, or remembered by only few of the survivors. At the same time, the contributions of numerous photographers expanded beyond the mere photographic documentation of the war. For instance, in 1990, Larry Towell published Somozas’ Last Stand, Testimonies from Nicaragua—an undersized book that consists primarily of testimonies of the victims of the war, placed along a minimal selection of his own photographs.

In 1983 Susan Meiselas co-curated the exhibition Inside El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, which consisted of work by the majority of the photographers active during the war in El Salvador, including her own. It was intended as a protest show, and as it traveled in the U.S. and abroad, it attempted to raise awareness yet again to the brutal consequences of the involvement of the American government in the war. The original exhibition records, prints, and text panels are stored in the archives of the Ransom Center.

The wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador remain two of the most documented conflicts of the 1980s. Both were brutal in the extreme, and the abuses of both sides, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, remain largely perplexing. Perhaps the hardest challenge has been to look at images of atrocities in such great numbers. Even as a twice-removed witness, it has been a difficult task to create distance and assume the position of the historian.

Related content:

Learn more about the Ransom Center’s 2008 exhibition Inside El Slavador.

Errol Morris book highlights photos from Ransom Center's collections

Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" with cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" with cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" without cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" without cannonballs. 1855.

Writer and filmmaker Errol Morris, winner of an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, an Emmy, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival, drew on the Ransom Center’s photography collections for his most recent book, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, published by Penguin in September 2011.

Morris’s interest in the mysteries of photography grew around the debate over two nearly identical Roger Fenton photographs in the Ransom Center’s collections.  The photographs were taken in sequence in a place called the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” during the Crimean War.

In one photo, the road through the valley is bare and the ditches full of cannonballs. In the other, the road is scattered with cannonballs. The photographs were taken on April 23, 1855, between 3 and 5 p.m., but photography scholars debate which photograph was taken first. The discrepancy between the images inevitably leads to a question of Fenton’s involvement. In which photograph did Fenton manipulate the scene?

Morris’s interest led him to Crimea to investigate. He borrowed a cannonball, found the valley, and came to a conclusion that caused him to question whether we can, 150 years later, recover the truth of Fenton’s intentions. Morris wrote extensively about this adventure for The New York Times.

Through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” photographs and a few others, Morris reveals how much of a photograph can be obscured by the viewer’s beliefs. A photographic detective story, Believing is Seeing is an exploration of the origins, intentions, and products of photographers.

Related content:

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

Fellow discusses work on wartime photography collections

"Believing is Seeing: Ovservations on the Mysteries of Photography" (Penguin Press, 2011).
"Believing is Seeing: Ovservations on the Mysteries of Photography" (Penguin Press, 2011).

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Banners are installed on the lamp posts in the Ransom Center plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Banners are installed on the lamp posts in the Ransom Center plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Laurel Dundee, photo archivist at the Ransom Center, shelves newly cataloged negatives from the “New York Journal-American” collection in the cold-storage room. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Laurel Dundee, photo archivist at the Ransom Center, shelves newly cataloged negatives from the “New York Journal-American” collection in the cold-storage room. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Danielle Sigler and Ryan Hildebrand, co-curators of “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” speak about the exhibition at KUT Radio, Austin’s NPR affiliate. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Danielle Sigler and Ryan Hildebrand, co-curators of “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” speak about the exhibition at KUT Radio, Austin’s NPR affiliate. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Ransom Center staffer Bob Fuentes moves a pallet of materials that recently arrived to supplement the London Review of Books collection. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Ransom Center staffer Bob Fuentes moves a pallet of materials that recently arrived to supplement the London Review of Books collection. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

'Arnold Newman: Masterclass' Opens in Berlin

Arnold Newman. 'Pablo Picasso, France, 1954.' Arnold Newman/Getty Images.
Arnold Newman. 'Pablo Picasso, France, 1954.' Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

Organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP) in collaboration with the Harry Ransom Center, the exhibition Arnold Newman: Masterclass explores the career of Arnold Newman, one of the finest portrait photographers of the twentieth century.

The exhibition opens March 3 in Germany at C|O Berlin, and the Ransom Center will host the exhibition’s first U.S. showing in February 2013.

This exhibition tour was created under the auspices of the American nonprofit organization FEP. The show highlights 200 framed vintage prints, covering Newman’s career, from the Arnold Newman Foundation archive and the collections of major American museums and private collectors. Twenty-eight photographs from the Ransom Center’s Newman collection are featured in the exhibition.

A bold modernist with a superb sense of compositional geometry, Newman is known for a crisp, spare style that cleverly situates his subjects in context. Artists delighted in sitting for Newman, knowing that he would find a way to convey their sensibility in dramatic, but always appropriate, fashion. Though Newman is celebrated today for his great portraiture, his still lifes, architectural studies, and earliest portraits, often of anonymous people in the street, are far less known, though they can well compare with the best in these genres.

The exhibition takes stock of the entire range of Newman’s photographic art, showing many fine prints for the first time.