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

By Harry Ransom Center

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: "Migrant Mother," Dorothea Lange, 1936

By Edgar Walters

Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother," Gernsheim collection, Harry Ransom Center.
Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother," Gernsheim collection, Harry Ransom Center.

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 powerful portrait depicts the weariness of a hard existence in poverty. Florence Owens, the migrant mother of the title, crouches in the foreground flanked by two of her children, their faces hidden. Her eyes seem not to be directed outward, perhaps contemplating an uncertain future with little hope.

The photographer, Dorothea Lange, was born in 1895 and contracted polio in childhood, leaving her with a lasting limp. She believed that this impairment increased her empathy for those down on their luck. Her photographic career began at a New York portrait studio in 1914, and she studied at Columbia University under Clarence White. She then moved to San Francisco to do freelance photography until 1919, when she opened her own portrait studio. During the Great Depression, however, fewer people had money to spend on portraits, and Lange moved to Taos, New Mexico, where she began work with several of the New Deal projects.

Owens lived a very different life. Of Cherokee descent, she worked as a pea picker in California. She had six children by 1932, and on remarriage, three more arrived. In 1935, however, the pea crop failed, and the family was forced to sell their tent to get food. In the following year, when Owens was 32, Lange arrived on assignment for the Federal Resettlement Administration and met the family. She took six photographs of Owens, including Migrant Mother. It was published in a number of magazines, including as a full-page image in the September 1936 issue of Survey Graphic.

Despite the image’s fame, Owens never profited personally from her portraits. In middle age, she often acted as the straw boss—the one who negotiated wages—for her fellow migrant workers, and she continued to work in the fields until the age of about 50. She married again and settled down with her new husband in Modesto, California. Despite the difficulty of much of her life, she lived to be 80; she died of cancer and heart problems in September 1983, survived by many of her children.

The Ransom Center’s photography collection holds the work of important early-twentieth-century documentary photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, as well as the more recent work of the Magnum Photos agency.

Ransom Center volunteer Alan Herbert wrote this post.

From the Archivist: Creating access to the Magnum Photos collection

By Mary Alice Harper

Photographic Archivist Mary Alice Harper works with the Magnum Photos Collection. Photo by Linda Briscoe Myers.
Photographic Archivist Mary Alice Harper works with the Magnum Photos Collection. Photo by Linda Briscoe Myers.
As is the case with any incoming collection, the Magnum Photos collection came with its own unique set of challenges. Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman and I have worked to develop and implement a strategy for making the collection accessible to researchers in a timely and organized manner.

Creating the preliminary inventory
The agreement between MSD Capital, the owner of the collection, and the Ransom Center places the Magnum collection at the Center for at least five years and stipulates the photographs be made available. Desiring to open the collection as quickly as possible, the curator and I devised a two-phase approach for cataloging it.

The first phase was to translate Magnum’s original, complexly coded spreadsheet into a standardized preliminary box-level inventory. Working with Magnum’s archivist, Matt Murphy, I organized the materials in such a way that the arrangement reflects Magnum’s various filing systems and simultaneously unites them. As a result, the materials are divided into the following five series: Photographers (photographs by Magnum photographers); Personalities (photographs of persons of note, from movie stars to world leaders); Subject (a broad selection of topics designated by Magnum); Geographic (photographs arranged by geographic location); and Magnum (photographs of Magnum photographers, agency staff, newspaper clippings, and non-Magnum photographs used for special projects).

The Personalities series of the original spreadsheet provided only name ranges for these boxes (e.g., Rodgers to Roosevelt). So throughout the spring, Jillian Patrick, an undergraduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, meticulously listed the personality’s name on each folder contained within the 200 boxes. Assistant Photographic Archivist Nicole Davis and I then spent more than one month editing that list and entering the Library of Congress’s authorized form of each personality’s name when available. When not available, we devised name forms according to the second revision of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules. This proved challenging, given the creative spelling and reverse order of various names found on Magnum’s folders. All original folder headings were maintained in the inventory, but references to the authority form of each name are also provided.

With the six-month anniversary of the collection’s arrival fast approaching, I converted the preliminary inventory into Encoded Archival Description, making it fully accessible and searchable online. The name authority work for all personalities is not complete, but 84 percent of the boxes are currently listed at the folder-level in the online version of the preliminary inventory. In the coming months, a revised version of the finding aid, with the Personalities series completed, will be posted online.

The future
In January, I hope to begin the second phase of cataloging the collection, which should take 12 months. The end result will be a detailed archival finding aid and a searchable database enabling researchers to locate all prints by any photographer in the collection.