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

In 1950 photography collector Helmut Gernsheim managed to track down a descendant of photographer Roger Fenton and scored one of the greatest coups of his career: Fenton’s own complete set of Crimean War photographs for a grand total of £50. After closing the deal in the owner’s Farnborough garage, Gernsheim loaded the prints into the trunk of his car and referred to the purchase as “quite a haul.” In 1954, Gernsheim published a book about the 360 mounted salt print photographs of the Crimea that he had purchased from Fenton’s heir.

The Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856, was fought mainly on the Crimean Peninsula and was where Florence Nightengale pioneered modern nursing practices. France allied with Turkey and Britain against the Russian Empire in a dispute over the declining Ottoman Empire territories and the authority of the Roman Catholic Church over the Russian Orthodox Church in Palestine.

According to Gernsheim, what made the Crimean War so interesting was that “in many respects, it was the last of the old wars, with dandy officers, purchasable commissions and mortar balls; in others, it is the first of modern war, with telegraphic communication, supply railway, efficient nursing and field kitchen and the first to be covered by photographers and newspaper reporters.”

Fenton took up photography in 1851, and by 1852 he was instrumental in founding the Photographic Society of London. For the next few years, Fenton photographed everything from items in the British Museum to the Royal Family.

From 1854 to 1855, under the patronage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Fenton photographed in the Crimea, where Great Britain was fighting an unpopular war against the Russians. In a joint venture between the Crown and the Manchester publisher Agnew & Sons, Fenton said that the images from his photographic campaign were “intended to illustrate faithfully the scenery of the camps; to display prominent incidents of military life, as well as to perpetuate the portraits of those distinguished officers, English and French, who have taken part in the ever memorable Siege of Sebastopol.”

Though the purpose of Fenton’s images was to realistically exhibit the Crimean War to the British public, Victorian standards discouraged Fenton from photographing the ghastly ravages of war.

Another restriction was the extended exposure times of the wet collodion process, which made photographing active combat impossible. Thus, Fenton relied upon posed images of soldiers and views of a battle’s destructive aftermath to convey the atmosphere of war.

Taking 36 cases of photography equipment, Fenton used a large van as a home base. Fenton equipped the pantechnicon with a cooking area, a living/sleeping area, and a dark room. Despite its utility, the van’s cumbersome size and light color made it an easy target for the Russians. Consequently, the van came under fire several times.

Painted on the van, in large black letters, were the words “photographic van.” As pictures were rare at the time, people inevitably flocked to the van requesting photographs to send home.

In addition to dealing with warfare, crowds, and the technical parameters of collodion photography, the intense heat and dusty terrain further complicated snapping photographs in the Crimea.

“As soon as the van door was closed to commence the preparation of the plate, perspiration started from every pore, and the sense of relief was great when it was possible to open the door to breathe even the hot air outside,” Fenton wrote in a letter that was quoted in Gernsheim’s book Roger Fenton: Photographer of the Crimean War:  His Photographs and his Letters from the Crimea.

Fenton managed to avoid the many dangers of being on location in the Crimea, but by June 1855, Fenton’s luck ran out, and he contracted cholera. He started his journey home and had recovered by the time he reached England. There, he presented his photographs in private audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and was even allowed to lie on the couch due to his delicate condition.

Despite the countless challenges, Fenton managed to produce the first photographic documentation of war in his more than 350 images of the Crimea.

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

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.

Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson and his wife, Emily, view items from the Isaac Bashevis Singer archive, which include materials relating to Davidson’s film based on 'The Beard,' a short story by Singer. Photo by Pete Smith.
Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson and his wife, Emily, view items from the Isaac Bashevis Singer archive, which include materials relating to Davidson’s film based on 'The Beard,' a short story by Singer. Photo by Pete Smith.
Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, and volunteer Emily Dellheim prepare a costume worn by Deborah Kerr in ‘An Affair to Remember’ (1957).  Costumes were pulled for Professor James Glavan and MFA students in Costume Technology in the Department of Theatre and Dance.  The students examined the design, fabric choices, and construction techniques of the costumes. Photo by Pete Smith.
Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, and volunteer Emily Dellheim prepare a costume worn by Deborah Kerr in ‘An Affair to Remember’ (1957). Costumes were pulled for Professor James Glavan and MFA students in Costume Technology in the Department of Theatre and Dance. The students examined the design, fabric choices, and construction techniques of the costumes. Photo by Pete Smith.
Archivist Jennifer Hecker shares the Morris Ernst collection with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Chairman Jim Leach and Deputy Chairman Carole Watson. The NEH provided a grant to arrange, describe, and preserve the Ernst papers. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Archivist Jennifer Hecker shares the Morris Ernst collection with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Chairman Jim Leach and Deputy Chairman Carole Watson. The NEH provided a grant to arrange, describe, and preserve the Ernst papers. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Materials from an incoming literary collection are checked by Ransom Center staff before they are sent to be cataloged. If insect infestation, mold, or other issues are detected, the conservation department treats the items. Photo by Pete Smith.
Materials from an incoming literary collection are checked by Ransom Center staff before they are sent to be cataloged. If insect infestation, mold, or other issues are detected, the conservation department treats the items. Photo by Pete Smith.

Embroidered Bible tells many stories

Among the Harry Ransom Center’s collection of early printed Bibles is a 1638 edition of what is arguably the single most influential English translation of the Bible, the King James Bible. This Bible’s front and back covers are embroidered with a nativity scene in silk and silver thread on linen. Mary, seated and holding the infant Jesus, is the most imposing and central figure in the scene. At her feet are the three Magi presenting gifts to the Christ child, while Joseph, clad in a red-and-white striped costume, stands behind her. At the bottom of the front cover is embroidered the Latin word “obtulerunt” (they offered), and on the back, “adoraverunt” (they adored), terms that refer not only to the actions of the Magi, but also, perhaps, to the devotional work of the embroiderer.

The book’s binding provides several clues about the embroiderer’s identity. The embroiderer would most likely have been a female member of a wealthy family who could have afforded the luxury goods of silk and silver with which the book was covered. Though there were professional male embroiderers at this time, embroidery was a formative component of girls’ education, and women were the main producers of embroidered household furnishings in wealthy households, including cushion covers, bed hangings, clothing, and book covers.

Through her embroidery, too, she would have participated in the seventeenth-century debate over needlework’s role in women’s education. Many contemporary writers praised needlework’s role in shaping women’s virtue, claiming that it kept women from idleness and talking too much. For example, a popular seventeenth-century pattern book, The Needle’s Excellency, begins with a poem by John Taylor called “The Praise of the Needle”:

And for my Countries quiet, I should like,
That Women-kinde should use no other Pike [i.e., needle].
It will increase their peace, enlarge their store,
To use their tongues lesse, and their Needles more.
The Needles sharpenesse, profit yields, and pleasure,
But sharpnesse of the tongue, bites out of measure.

But women’s needlework also troubled early modern moralists because it encouraged women to aspire to the more “manly” virtues of artistic creation and public display. Others, however, saw the private and public faces of needlework not in opposition but as a continuum. Hannah Wolley, a writer of household manuals, recommended that women wear clothing they had worked themselves as public signs of their skill and virtue. And still others explicitly perceived needlework as authorship. The tomb of Dame Dorothy Selby (ca. 1572–1641), for example, describes her as a woman:

Whose curious needle wound the abused stage
Of this leud world into the golden age,
Whose pen of steel and silken inck enroll’d
The acts of Jonah in records of gold.

The needle, then, was also seen as a tongue or a pen with which women could participate in public dialogue with and about the world. Mary’s prominence in this Bible’s embroidered scene, for example, is no accident. The most popular sources of pictorial embroidery in the seventeenth century were Biblical stories of heroic and virtuous women. That the intimate and domestic nativity scene on the cover of this Bible is also one of public worship by the Magi makes it a fitting representation of the simultaneously private and public roles of domestic needlework and its maker.

The embroiderer of the Ransom Center’s 1638 Bible would also have been someone of artistic sensibility. Placing the family against a background of silver thread recalls the painterly practice of situating holy figures against a metallic background to highlight their otherworldly qualities. The flowers and leaves on the spine are examples of raised work, a very popular embroidery style in the seventeenth century. Its three-dimensional effect is part of the contemporary trend towards textured effects in other artistic media. We welcome readers’ advice in identifying the particular stitch this embroiderer used here.

Finally, thanks to the numerous marks of ownership inside the book, we may even know the needlewoman’s last name. Written on verso of the title page to New Testament is the inscription: “John Sleigh, Inner Temple. 12 Nov AD 1850.” Written inside back cover is the note: “James Sleigh ye sonne of Hugh Sleigh was born ye 26th [?] day of Jany 1688.” And inside the front cover is pasted in a hand-drawn shield that includes the arms of the Sleigh family of Derbyshire, England.

This artifact’s text, annotations, and decoration thus combine to enrich our understanding of women, domestic life, economics, reading practices, art, religion, and material culture in seventeenth-century England.

Bibliography:

Brooks, Mary M. English Embroideries of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries in the Collection of the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford: University of Oxford, 2004.

Jewitt, Llewellyn, ed. The Reliquary, vol. 7. London: Bemrose & Lothian and John Russell Smith, 1866-7.

Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Peter Stallybrass. “The needle and the pen: needlework and the appropriation of printed texts.” In Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, ed. Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Morrall, Andrew, and Melinda Watt, eds. English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: ’Twixt Art and Nature. New York: The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture; New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Parker, Roszika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. London: Women’s Press, 1984.

Click on thumbnails for larger images.

Image: The Holy Bible, HRC BS 185 1638 L5 1638. Printed by Robert Barker, London, 1638. Size: ca. 6 x 3.5 in. Cover materials: silk and silver thread on linen.

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.

The Texas Book Festival and the Ransom Center co-sponsored the panel 'David Foster Wallace: A Life' at last weekend’s festival, which included  Matt Bucher (moderator), David Lipsky, David Means, and  Antonya Nelson. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The Texas Book Festival and the Ransom Center co-sponsored the panel 'David Foster Wallace: A Life' at last weekend’s festival, which included Matt Bucher (moderator), David Lipsky, David Means, and Antonya Nelson. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Gallery model of preliminary layout for the spring 2011 'Becoming Tennessee Williams' exhibition. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Gallery model of preliminary layout for the spring 2011 'Becoming Tennessee Williams' exhibition. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley and Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of the 'New York Times Book Review,' spoke informally with Ransom Center staff, university faculty, and students on Thursday, October 21. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley and Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of the 'New York Times Book Review,' spoke informally with Ransom Center staff, university faculty, and students on Thursday, October 21. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
University graduate student and film collection volunteer Sandra Yates splices together outtakes of footage from film and theater producer Lewis Allen’s collection. Photo by Pete Smith.
University graduate student and film collection volunteer Sandra Yates splices together outtakes of footage from film and theater producer Lewis Allen’s collection. Photo by Pete Smith.

Tonight: "The Lives and Work of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim"

Cover of ‘The Gernsheim Collection’
Cover of ‘The Gernsheim Collection’

Tonight, J. B. Colson, Professor Emeritus of Journalism and Fellow of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, and Roy Flukinger, Ransom Center Senior Research Curator of Photography, discuss the lives and work of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim at the Ransom Center.

This event will be webcast live and is held in conjunction with the exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection, on display through January 2, and the release of the book The Gernsheim Collection. A book signing of The Gernsheim Collection follows.

In this video clip from a 1978 interview, Colson asks Helmut Gernsheim about his passion for collecting and his career as a pioneering historian of photography. Helmut and Alison Gernsheim’s efforts significantly contributed to the acceptance of photography as a fine art and as a field worthy of intellectual study. In this clip, Gernsheim discusses how and why he started collecting photography before it became an established practice.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center will share 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.

Ransom Center docent Janet Laughlin sits in the south atrium alongside a reflection of an illustration from 'Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,' John Tenniel, 1865.  Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Ransom Center docent Janet Laughlin sits in the south atrium alongside a reflection of an illustration from 'Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,' John Tenniel, 1865. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Adair shares holdings from the Erle Stanley Gardner archive at a reception for new members. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Adair shares holdings from the Erle Stanley Gardner archive at a reception for new members. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Image of an etching from the Ransom Center’s windows. The etching is of Gunn and Stewart’s 'Queen Victoria on Her Diamond Jubilee,' 1897. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Image of an etching from the Ransom Center’s windows. The etching is of Gunn and Stewart’s 'Queen Victoria on Her Diamond Jubilee,' 1897. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Charles R. Larson on African literature

Charles R. Larson. Photo by Roberta Rubenstein.
Charles R. Larson. Photo by Roberta Rubenstein.
Tonight, Charles R. Larson of American University speaks about his collection of African, African American, and Native American literature, acquired by the Harry Ransom Center in 2009. Bernth Lindfors, University of Texas at Austin emeritus professor of English, hosts the conversation, which will be webcast live. Here Larson shares how he became interested in African literature and began collecting.

This collection of books and manuscripts would not exist if I had not gone to Nigeria in 1962 as a Peace Corps volunteer. Prior to my departure, I had earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in American literature and written my thesis on William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. I fully intended to return to the United States and pursue a Ph.D. in American literature. Fortunately, the summer before my departure for Nigeria, I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

Nigeria totally altered my worldview, mostly by showing me the failure of my earlier education. Not only did I begin reading emerging works by African writers, but I realized that in the many American literature courses that I had taken, I had never read a work by a minority writer. I began ordering books from the United States and reading Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and other African American writers. How ironic that the man who directed my M.A. thesis and taught the American literature survey course I took never mentioned a single African American writer, yet he was an African American. After I returned to the United States, I discovered that he had one of the most extensive private collections of African American literature, but he obviously never felt comfortable enough to assign any of those writers in his own courses.

How fortunate that the school where I taught English in Eastern Nigeria was a scant few miles from Ogidi, the village where Achebe grew up and the setting of his celebrated novel. I was aware of Ogidi’s proximity to my own village and was even told that Achebe visited his family there from time to time, but I made no attempt to meet him until several years later. Equally important, however, was Onitsha, the Igbo center of business and culture, a dozen miles from where I lived. It was there that I purchased many of the original titles by the Onitsha pamphleteers and had my first true sense of what was already becoming a major school of African writing. In Onitsha at the CMS Bookstore, I also purchased Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God, soon after it was published.

Nigeria changed my scholarly life. When I returned home I was determined to see that works by African writers were reprinted in American editions, and in the spring of the 1965 academic year, I taught my first course in African literature. The rest is history.

Through Lewis Carroll’s Looking Glass

Lewis Carroll is synonymous with Alice in Wonderland, his 1865 novel of nonsensical imagination that cemented his reputation as a visionary author and captured the hearts of children and adults alike. Carroll’s literary creation, immortalized through Disney movies, is well known. What is less known, however, is Carroll’s life as an avid photographer.

Carroll’s forgotten hobby was not rediscovered until 1949, 50 years after his death, when collector Helmut Gernsheim was offered an original album of photographs taken by Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Dodgson, of course, was the same man who published under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Gernsheim poured his energy into discovering more of the photographer, “for quite frankly” as Gernsheim recalled “until then, Lewis Carroll, photographer, had been a stranger to me.”

“I consulted the leading histories of photography and studied the photographic literature of the last century for information,”‘ wrote Gernsheim in his book Lewis Carroll, Photographer. “I sought it with thimbles, I sought it with care, I pursued it with forks and hope, but Dodgson’s name and his pseudonym remained as elusive as the Snark.”

Gernsheim sent his wife to compare the distinctive purple ink and handwriting in the album with Lewis Carroll manuscripts in the British Museum. After a meticulous search, Gernsehim contacted Dodgson’s living descendants, historians, and photographic subjects. The Gernsheims were able to track down and acquire four more albums for their collection, which are now part of the Ransom Center’s collections.

The rediscovery of an essentially forgotten nineteenth-century photographer introduced novel and entirely visual insights of the renowned author and eventually led to Gernsheim’s publication Lewis Carroll, Photographer.

Dodgson pursued photography for 24 years between 1856 and 1880. The album was Dodgson’s chosen medium to present and preserve his photographs of family and friends. Like most photographers of his day, Dodgson used the wet collodion negative processes and the corresponding positive albumen print processes.

The complicated process involved setting up a cumbersome tripod camera and posing the sitter in an aesthetically sensitive manner. Dodgson always took great aims to ensure a relaxed atmosphere, which was not an easy task because posing for extended periods of time tended to produce static, formalized portraits. Next, the photographer would coat and sensitize a plate of glass in a makeshift darkroom. Then, the photographer would quickly transport the light-sensitive “wet plate” to the camera and make an exposure upon it. Finally, he would return to the darkroom to promptly develop and fix the exposure before the plate could dry to complete the negative process.

Dodgson favored the albumen print, which allowed the dried wet collodion negatives to be placed in contact with sensitized paper surface and printed. A binding solution composed of processed egg whites held light-sensitive silver salts onto the coated surface of a thin sheet of paper and resulted in lustrous prints with broad tonal ranges.

Though only a hobby, Dodgson demonstrated genuine skill while utilizing the wet collodion negative processes and the corresponding positive albumen print processes, both of which required patience and dexterity to master. Dodgson’s skill is easily visible in his photographs, which convey a broad range of emotions.

 

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

 

Before and After: A Henry Peach Robinson photograph

Before: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.
Before: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.

After: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.
After: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.

“Before and After” goes behind the scenes with the the Ransom Center’s conservation department. The most recent installment highlighted work that Head of Photograph Conservation Barbara Brown completed on the Henry Peach Robinson photograph “Bringing Home the May,” taken ca. 1862–1863.

Learn more about how the photograph was repaired and re-mounted.

Some of Robinson’s work is on view in the current exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.

Research at the Ransom Center: The travels of photojournalist David Douglas Duncan

David Douglas Duncan. 'Aramcovid  derrick at Abqaiq. Bedouin caravan to oblivion.' Saudi Arabia, 1947.
David Douglas Duncan. 'Aramcovid derrick at Abqaiq. Bedouin caravan to oblivion.' Saudi Arabia, 1947.
Katherine Slusher, an art curator and writer based in Barcelona was a David Douglas Duncan Fellow at the Ransom Center in 2009. She writes about her research in the Duncan collection, which documents his travels all over the world as a photojournalist.

Slusher’s article highlights Duncan’s extensive travels to the Florida Everglades, the Caribbean, South America, Central America, Afghanistan, Egypt, Persia, and Turkey as he captured iconic images for such publications as LIFE Magazine.

The Ransom Center annually awards more than 50 fellowships to support scholarly research projects that require on-site use of its collections. The Center is receiving applications for its 2011-2012 fellowships in the humanities.