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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.

View video of “Gernsheim Plays 20 Questions with George Bernard Shaw”

In this video clip from a 1978 interview, J. B. Colson, Professor Emeritus of Journalism and Fellow of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, asks Helmut Gernsheim about his letter collection of famous and contemporary photographers, including correspondence with George Bernard Shaw. In this clip, Gernsheim discusses how he asked Shaw 20 questions about his interest in photography and Shaw’s response.

View the exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection at the Harry Ransom Center through January 2. The galleries are open Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours until 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays.

From blue skies to blue print: Astronomer John Herschel’s invention of the cyanotype

For Sir John Herschel, science and art were inextricably linked. Son of the celebrated astronomer William Herschel—who, with the discovery of the planet Uranus, revolutionized the modern day conception of the universe—science was in John Herschel’s blood. Following in his father’s footsteps, Herschel himself became a renowned astronomer. Herschel also applied scientific exploration to art and participated in some of photography’s earliest experimentation.

An accomplished chemist, Herschel discovered the action of hyposulfite of soda on silver salts, which lead to the use of “hypo” as the most effective fixing agent for silver-based photography. Herschel also endorsed and encouraged the term “photography” and coined the terms “negative” and “positive” to refer to photographic images.

John Herschel not only searched the dark blue skies, but also searched for ways to introduce color into photography. A child of Newtonian science, Herschel knew that white light is composed of the color spectrum. The trick was to separate the white light and pinpoint specific colors: “By using the prism first to separate all but the pure prismatic tint of given refrangibility and then re-analyzing this by media I conceive it possible to obtain rays totally exempt from any colour but the elementary one wanted” Herschel theorized in a letter, dated July 6, 1839, to Henry F. Talbot, another scientist interested in experimental photography.

During his quest for color, Herschel carefully documented his experiments with hundreds of variations of chemical formulas, using engravings as source imagery to create negatives on paper. In 1842, Herschel invented the cyanotype.

The cyanotype process uses light-sensitive iron salts produced by brushing solutions of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, also known as Prussian blue, onto paper, which is then dried in the dark. Cyanotypes were not widely used until 1880, when they became popular because they required only water for fixing the image.

The cyanotype is one of Herschel’s most influential contributions to the art of photography. Not only does it lend itself to strikingly beautiful photos, but the cyanotype is also the originator of the architect blue-print.

One of Herschel’s cyanotypes is featured in the exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection. Closing in just a few weeks, the exhibition can be seen in the Ransom Center Galleries on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours until 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays. Free docent-led tours of the Gernsheim exhibition are offered at 2 p.m. on this Saturday and Sunday.

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

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.

Web exhibition highlights world's first photo

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's View from the Window at Le Gras. c. 1826. Gernsheim Collection Harry Ransom Center / University of Texas at Austin. Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's View from the Window at Le Gras. c. 1826. Gernsheim Collection Harry Ransom Center / University of Texas at Austin. Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the world’s first photograph in 1826 or 1827, but it took more than 125 years for it to be recognized as such. The photograph was rediscovered by photo historian Helmut Gernsheim, who found it lying forgotten in a trunk. “I held the foundation stone of photography in my hand,” Gernhseim 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.’”

Freed from its “nightmare existence,” the first photograph is on permanent view in the Ransom Center’s lobby. This web exhibition about the first photograph includes information about Niépce, Gernsheim’s discovery, conservation and preservation of the photograph, and more.