Navigate / search

From the Outside In: First photograph, "View from the Window at Le Gras," Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, ca. 1826

By Edgar Walters

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

One of the most renowned items in the Ransom Center’s collections is the first photograph, which has been reproduced on the Center’s south atrium window. A French inventor named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took this first photograph from the window of his studio in France in the early 1820s, and due to a fortunate series of events, the photograph is part of the Ransom Center’s collections.

 

Niépce was born in 1765 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when great innovations were taking place around Europe. One of these innovations was the art of lithography, a form of printing that involves using chemicals on a flat, smooth surface to transfer images. Niépce became entranced by the lithographic process and began toying with its potential. A poor draftsman, he depended on his artistically inclined son Isidore to create illustrations for his lithographic pursuits. Isidore, however, was drafted into Napoleon’s army, leaving Niépce unable to create lithographs. Intent on finding a way to create images without having to draw them, Niépce turned to the camera obscura, a device developed in the Renaissance in which an image could be projected through a small hole into a darkened box or room. Inside this darkened space an image would be cast as a realistic, albeit upside down, projection. Niépce thought to capture this image using a light-sensitive material so that the light itself would “etch” the picture for him. In 1826, through a process of trial and error, he finally came upon the combination of bitumen of Judea (a form of asphalt) spread over a pewter plate. When he let this petroleum-based substance sit in a camera obscura for eight hours without interruption, the light gradually hardened the bitumen where it hit, thus creating a rudimentary photo. He “developed” this picture by washing away the unhardened bitumen with lavender water, revealing an image of the rooftops and trees visible from his studio window. Niépce had successfully made the world’s first photograph.

 

Excited with his new method of capturing images from life, Niépce hurried to present his invention of heliography, or “light writing,” to the Royal Society of London. Yet, the invention’s potential was not recognized, and he was turned away. Niépce was undeterred, and he joined with Louis Daguerre to continue refining his heliographic process. Although Niépce passed away before photography became an everyday staple, Daguerre kept experimenting and created the daguerreotype in 1839, which introduced the concept of photography to the wider world.

 

This important image came to the Ransom Center in 1963 from the photo historian Helmut Gernsheim. The First Photograph had gone missing after 1905. Gernsheim tracked it down in 1952 in the possession of the descendants of the previous owner, who found it in storage, sitting unknown in a crate all that time. A decade after this discovery, Gernsheim generously donated the one-of-a-kind object to the Center after its purchase of his photography collection. For more information on the First Photograph and its history, visit the First Photograph web exhibition.

 

The Gernsheim collection features many other prominent photographs, covering the history of photography through the 1960s. The Ransom Center also houses the Magnum Photos archive of nearly 200,000 photographs from the 1950s to the present, and other prominent works, making the Center a fruitful place for research.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Holly Hansel wrote this post.

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

From the Outside In: “Transept of the Crystal Palace,” Benjamin Brecknell Turner, March 1852

By Edgar Walters

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

This image captures the dramatic scale of the Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first international world’s fair. It was the largest glass building at the time, covering 990,000 square feet of Hyde Park in the middle of London, and so tall that it could enclose whole elm trees. The photograph was taken at the end of the exhibition, before the palace was dismantled and rebuilt in the suburb Sydenham, south of the city, as an even grander permanent exhibition space.

 

The Great Exhibition had been envisioned by Prince Albert to show off the wonders of British technology, and the Crystal Palace itself was one of the greatest wonders on show. Designing a building to house the more than 14,000 exhibits of the Exhibition had been a long and difficult process. Until the planning committee accepted Joseph Paxton’s winning design in July 1850, they had rejected every submitted proposal as too expensive to build, in addition to a design that they themselves had created and that had been ridiculed by the press. Paxton was one of the most respected gardeners in the United Kingdom and had ample experience creating large greenhouses. His Crystal Palace design took advantage of a newly invented process for mass-producing sheet glass. Held together by cast iron supports, 900,000 square feet of glass were used to create a modular structure at a cost less than half of many of the other designs. The modular design also allowed Paxton to make changes as needed; the transept in this picture was specially created to enclose a line of elms that otherwise would have been cut down. The final structure was 72 feet wide, more than 1,800 feet (six football fields) long, and up to 100 feet high, but Paxton was able to construct it on budget in only five months, in time for the opening of the exhibition on May 1, 1851.

 

Among its other attractions, the exhibition included one of the first large-scale displays of photographs anywhere in the world: over 700 photographs from six different countries. Photographer Benjamin Brecknell Turner was likely one of the people who saw these photos. In 1852, he photographed the Crystal Palace with a large-field camera, creating some of the most dramatic architectural compositions of the Victorian Age. Turner had gained a license to use William Fox Talbot’s calotype technique in 1849, and he preferred to use this method for all of his large-scale 30 x 40 centimeter paper negatives from then on. With his new camera, he was able to capture the Crystal Palace in striking detail, and he became one of the pioneers of photography’s early era.

 

This image forms a part of the Ransom Center’s Gernsheim collection, which documents the history of photography from the First Photograph (ca. 1826) until the 1960s.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Emilio Englade wrote this post.

 

Image: From the original calotype paper negative of “Transept of the Crystal Palace,” Benjamin Brecknell Turner, March 1852.

From the Outside In: Illustration for Lewis Carroll's "Hiawatha's Photographing," Arthur B. Frost, 1883.

By Edgar Walters

Illustration for Lewis Carroll's "Hiawatha's Photographing."
Illustration for Lewis Carroll's "Hiawatha's Photographing."

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

This he perched upon a tripod—
Crouched beneath its dusky cover—
Stretched his hand enforcing silence—
Said “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.
—from Lewis Carroll, “Hiawatha’s Photographing”

The image etched into the Harry Ransom Center’s windows of a wooden camera with a photographer crouching behind, hand outstretched, is an illustration by Arthur B. Frost for the poem “Hiawatha’s Photographing” by Lewis Carroll. The poem parodies Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (1855), an epic ballad that became popular despite its awkward meter that was often mocked. Although the protagonist in Longfellow’s poem is based on a Native-American hero, Carroll’s Hiawatha is a photographer who arrives at a family’s home and attempts to take each relative’s portrait, yet continually fails because the sitters move too soon and pose too strangely. Hiawatha finally manages to tumble “all the tribe together” and create a photograph in which “the faces all succeed.” But the family members then criticize the image as “the worst and ugliest picture / They could possibly have dreamed of,” and assert that “Really any one would take us / (Any one that did not know us) / For the most unpleasant people!” Carroll satirizes not just vanity in this poem but also the Victorian fad for families to have their pictures taken while adopting poses of affected elegance. Though “Hiawatha’s Photographing” appeared in the magazine Train in about 1857, this illustration did not accompany the poem until its publication within Carroll’s 1883 anthology Rhyme? And Reason?, to which Arthur B. Frost contributed 65 illustrations.

Although Carroll is well known as the author of the beloved Alice books, he was also an accomplished mathematician, logician, and photographer. He was born in Daresbury, Cheshire, England, in 1832, and given the name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He later chose the pen name Lewis Carroll to separate his academic life from his career publishing comedic poetry and nonsense writings. As a mathematics lecturer at Christ Church College, Oxford, between 1855 and 1881, Carroll published reputable works on mathematics and logic, many of which are still valued by scholars today. During the summer of 1856, Carroll adopted the then-burgeoning practice of photography as a hobby. He purchased an Otterwill folding camera, much like the one pictured in the illustration, which used the collodion-plate process and required finesse in timing and technique to produce a successful picture. Although this technique was difficult to master, Carroll produced more than 80 successful albumen-print photographs during his first summer, primarily portraits of his family. With the camera, Carroll had found a real-life “looking glass.” Inspired by Oscar Gustave Rejlander—the first photographer to create art photos comparable to paintings—Carroll settled on the genre of child portraiture. His most frequent subjects were his “child-friends,” many of whom were the daughters of his Oxford colleagues. The most notable of these children were Alice Liddell, who inspired the stories of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and Alexandra “Xie” Kitchin, Carroll’s favorite subject, of whom he created about 50 photographs that spanned her childhood. Carroll carefully organized his photographs into albums to be given as gifts, which he kept within his own personal collection, and as portfolios to display to potential sitters. Although Carroll assembled at least 34 of these albums in his lifetime, only a third of these are known to exist today. Because of Carroll’s gift for putting his subjects at ease, he was able to capture youthful innocence with contented expressions not previously achieved. Biographer Morton N. Cohen claims that “his studies of children reached the apex of the genre in the earliest days of photography and retain their authority today.”

The Ransom Center holds a large collection of Carroll’s photography, with five complete albums and more than 380 photographs. One album, labeled nonchronologically as “Album A (VI),” is believed to contain Carroll’s earliest photographs. Peter C. Bunnell, in his introduction to the book Lewis Carroll: Photographer, refers to this “small and intimate album” as “most likely his first and perhaps intended to be seen only by the Dodgson family and close friends,” and continues that “[t]his album reveals just how quickly [Carroll] was able to grasp and master the complexities of the process as well as compose exceptionally elegant images.” These photographs came to the Center through the acquisition of the Gernsheim collection, whose images document the history of photography from its beginning. The Center’s Warren Weaver collection holds rare editions of Carroll’s books, including two inscribed copies of the 1883 Rhyme? And Reason?, from which this illustration for “Hiawatha’s Photographing” originates. Manuscripts, correspondence, and juvenilia fill out the Center’s Carroll collection. In addition, a large number of items related to Alice in Wonderland are found in the Byron and Susan Sewell collection, which includes translations of the work into 21 languages, as well as parodies and adaptations of the story for television, theater, and film. Viewing Carroll’s photographs, especially in the preserved albums in which he arranged them, provides not only insight into his life’s story and the people with whom he associated, but also an understanding of his talents as an artist outside children’s literature.

Ransom Center volunteer Amy Kristofoletti wrote this post.

Seminar exposes students to the Ransom Center’s photography holdings

By Ady Wetegrove

Dr. Sherre L. Paris—lecturer at The University of Texas School of Journalism—teaches her undergraduate 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, undergraduates 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.

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

By Margaret Denny

 

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.

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

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.

Broadcast journalism and radio-television-film major Isabella Ferraro, a student worker in the Ransom Center's art collection for the past two years, helps realign the flat files in the prints and drawings room. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Broadcast journalism and radio-television-film major Isabella Ferraro, a student worker in the Ransom Center's art collection for the past two years, helps realign the flat files in the prints and drawings room. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Author Renata Adler visits the Ransom Center and meets with Director Thomas F. Staley in his office. Photo by Pete Smith.
Author Renata Adler visits the Ransom Center and meets with Director Thomas F. Staley in his office. Photo by Pete Smith.
Freshman Elizabeth Diaz, a student worker, assists in housing photographs, including this Julia Margaret Cameron image from the Gernsheim collection. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Freshman Elizabeth Diaz, a student worker, assists in housing photographs, including this Julia Margaret Cameron image from the Gernsheim collection. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

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.

Cameras on display in the exhibition ‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.’  Shown here are cameras ranging in date from 1886 to 1925, including the first Kodak camera and a circular nineteenth-century detective camera that was used while being concealed under a jacket or vest. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Cameras on display in the exhibition ‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.’ Shown here are cameras ranging in date from 1886 to 1925, including the first Kodak camera and a circular nineteenth-century detective camera that was used while being concealed under a jacket or vest. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Currently on display, this portable folding camera obscura, ca. 1750, can be disassembled and stored in the box that serves as its base. The periscope, which comes with separate lenses for distant and near subjects, contains a mirror that reflects the light at a 45-degree angle onto the floor of the base. This projected image may be viewed through a large aperture on the side, and an artist could reach inside through a cloth sleeve to trace the projected image onto a sheet of paper. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Currently on display, this portable folding camera obscura, ca. 1750, can be disassembled and stored in the box that serves as its base. The periscope, which comes with separate lenses for distant and near subjects, contains a mirror that reflects the light at a 45-degree angle onto the floor of the base. This projected image may be viewed through a large aperture on the side, and an artist could reach inside through a cloth sleeve to trace the projected image onto a sheet of paper. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Hal Erickson, a University of Utah Health Sciences Center researcher, visited the Ransom Center to apply nondestructive forensic techniques for recovering faded, erased, redacted, obscured or otherwise lost content.  Here, Erickson is photographing a passage that was redacted, and then further obscured with adhered paper bearing replacement text, by Thomas Hammond in a manuscript volume of his ‘Memoirs.’  Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Hal Erickson, a University of Utah Health Sciences Center researcher, visited the Ransom Center to apply nondestructive forensic techniques for recovering faded, erased, redacted, obscured or otherwise lost content. Here, Erickson is photographing a passage that was redacted, and then further obscured with adhered paper bearing replacement text, by Thomas Hammond in a manuscript volume of his ‘Memoirs.’ Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

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.

Undergraduate Elizabeth Phan (left) and Apryl Voskamp, manager of preservation housing, work with collection items coming out of cold storage.  Because there had been evidence of bugs, Phan and Voskamp are covering the items with thin mylar, where they will then sit in constructed trays to observe any potential future evidence of bug activity. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Undergraduate Elizabeth Phan (left) and Apryl Voskamp, manager of preservation housing, work with collection items coming out of cold storage. Because there had been evidence of bugs, Phan and Voskamp are covering the items with thin mylar, where they will then sit in constructed trays to observe any potential future evidence of bug activity. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
David Coleman, curator of photography, leads a gallery tour of the exhibition ‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.’ Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
David Coleman, curator of photography, leads a gallery tour of the exhibition ‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.’ Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Volunteer paper conservator Lauren Morales shapes a toned insert paper to fill in the losses of an original 1889 English circus poster, part of the performing arts collection. The losses (white spaces) are visible in the area of the horse (lower left of the image along a horizontal fold line) and around the orange-colored insert for the man's jacket. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Volunteer paper conservator Lauren Morales shapes a toned insert paper to fill in the losses of an original 1889 English circus poster, part of the performing arts collection. The losses (white spaces) are visible in the area of the horse (lower left of the image along a horizontal fold line) and around the orange-colored insert for the man's jacket. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

View video of "Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection"

By Christine Lee

The exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection opens today at the Ransom Center.

Drawn from the peerless collection of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, the exhibition features masterpieces from photography’s first 150 years, alongside other images that, while lesser known, are integral to the medium’s history. Highlights include the first photograph (on permanent display at the Ransom Center); works by nineteenth-century masters such as Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Henry Peach Robinson; and iconic images by modern photographers such as Man Ray, Edward Weston, Robert Capa, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The Harry Ransom Center will celebrate the opening of the exhibition with “A Picture Perfect Evening” on Friday, September 10th from 6 to 8 p.m. The event is free for Ransom Center members or $20 for non-members. Tickets can be purchased in advance on the website or at the door. The event will feature exhibition tours, refreshments, a photo booth, and make-and-take photo keepsakes with The Wondercraft.

Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection
Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection