While visiting the Harry Ransom Center in September 2011, Elliott Erwitt noted that “a good photograph is pretty obvious. It tells you a story very quickly. When it works, that is a good photograph.”
The more than 280 photos of 90 sequences in Erwitt’s new book Sequentially Yours (teNeues, 2011) certainly meet that qualification.
Visit the Ransom Center’s Facebook page to pick your favorite Elliott Erwitt photo for the chance to win a copy of Sequentially Yours.
Publisher teNeues describes Sequentially Yours as Erwitt presenting “a sense of vignettes, each showing a sequence of photographs shot just moments apart. Gifted storyteller that he is, Erwitt gives you a sense of what happens next, the end point being sometimes comic, sometimes poignant, and often with a wink.”
In his more than 60 years as a working photographer, Erwitt has shot iconic images of historical figures and celebrities as well as photographs of ordinary people and everyday occurrences. Sequences in the book reveal a couple’s unsuccessful efforts to close their beach umbrella in windy weather, the interactions of the cast on the film set of The Misfits (1961), and other actions and events.
“In Sequentially Yours, Elliott has created a new form, somewhere between single exposures and film,” writes Marshall Brickman in the foreword. He describes Erwitt as having “… an affection for empty spaces, places where his subjects have been or will be in a moment, or for things or people who just disappear.”
Erwitt has remarked that taking good pictures requires visual sense, including a sense of composition and design. Erwitt’s other essential is curiosity, which is evident in these sequences.
Erwitt is the author of more than 20 photography books, including Photographs and Anti-photographs (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1972), Personal Exposures (WW Norton & Company, 1989), Personal Best (teNeues, 2006), and Elliott Erwitt’s Paris (teNeues, 2010).
The archive of photographer Elliott Erwitt, which includes more than 50,000 signed photographic prints, is housed at the Ransom Center. The Erwitt materials are currently being prepared for public access.
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Who was Spalding Gray?
Fans have debated this question for years, as Gray was a pioneer in blurring the line between real life and theater in his autobiographical and often very personal monologues. He left audiences wondering how much of the stage persona was the real Gray and how much was Gray the performer.
Photographer Ann Rhoney captured the real Spalding Gray at home in his Wooster Street loft in New York City on an August day in 1990. He wasn’t wearing his usual plaid shirt. He wasn’t sitting behind a desk with a notebook and props. He was sitting comfortably at home in his grandmother’s chair and having a conversation with a new friend.
Rhoney splits her time between New York and the West Coast, and after a photo shoot in San Francisco the previous day, she took a red-eye flight to New York City to meet Gray and photograph him for a portrait assignment related to his forthcoming monologue Monster in a Box.
She described Gray as affable but somewhat meek and reserved when she arrived. He was wearing a shirt with a color somewhere between green and gold. “He may have pressed it himself,” Rhoney notes. “He appeared to be rather dressed up for that hour of the morning.”
As she started chatting with him and asking questions to try to get him to relax and open up for the session, he told her about the piece he was working on—a monologue that would become Gray’s Anatomy, which chronicled Gray’s medical problems with his eyes.
“Then all of the sudden, he started going into character, in a way,” Rhoney noticed. “That’s when a great moment happened.”
Gray dramatically described going to a medicine man in Niagara Falls to seek treatment for his eyes, as if he wanted to impress his new audience. Rhoney’s uncharacteristically blunt response?
“Oh, you fool!”
Rhoney describes Gray’s shock at her response: “His eyes opened in wide surprise and bewilderment. He jumped back, as if ‘What are you saying to me?’”
Then Rhoney explained that she was born and raised in Niagara Falls with a familial heritage of a funeral home in close proximity to an Indian reservation.
“He lit up,” she said.
The ice had been broken, and from then on, Rhoney had Gray’s full attention. Gray peppered her with questions as she did her light meter readings and prepared for the shoot, loading her Hasselblad camera.
Conversation flowed, and the result was 271 frames of Gray in what Rhoney says is, essentially, a still-life movie. “It’s a portrait of a soul with a range of every human emotion in this session of 15 rolls.”
“To get a successful portrait, you have to enter into an honest exchange with the person so that their spirit, their personal landscape emerges. You have to put them at ease and put yourself in their place.”
Rhoney spoke about how people are unable to see themselves, but once in a while—”every once in a blue moon”—a person can look at a photograph and recognize oneself.
“I always try to get that photograph where the person will say, ‘That’s me,’” she said.
The Ransom Center recently acquired two images from that session, one with an animated Gray using his hands for full effect and a second, quieter image of Gray midthought. Gray’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and recently opened for research.
“He completely offered me and my camera—even though at times he thought the camera got in the way of the conversation—an honest openness throughout the session,” she said. “He moved differently than he did on stage. It was as if I had a private performance. Yet it was not a performance at all. He was giving me his spirit.”
As Rhoney studied the images, she kept coming back to the hands in the first image. Though she’s looked at the photo hundreds of times, she made yet another discovery.
“Think about a palm reader, and if you look at the palm on his left, how poignant and beautiful that is. It’s as if he left us with his hand imprint,” she said. After a pause, she continued, “Especially the left palm. The detail on that? If everyone wants a road map to Spalding, there it is.”
As Rhoney studied the second image, she thought more about how he interacted with audiences.
“There’s a stillness. Yet you can see his thought process in motion,” she said.”We know him as talking to an audience, but I believe when he talked to the audience, he talked to everyone individually, even though he couldn’t see their faces. There’s something about this image where he’s talking to me behind the camera. That’s how he really, truly regarded his audiences—as a collective whole of individuals.”
The Gray archive contains no photos, so Rhoney’s portraits give scholars an additional lens through which to view Gray and his work.
“I’d like the photos to be a window into who he was,” Rhoney said. “Hopefully, this leads the scholars into seeing him with fresh eyes. As a photographer, I feel lucky to show him in a form of reality. This is who he was and is. A photograph is the truth and a scholarly document at its finest.”
Rhoney said this photo session led to a strong friendship, and Gray often told her how much he loved the photograph with the hand detail Rhoney loved. As she studied her photos and her contact sheets, she laughed often as she recalled details from the shoot and their conversation.
“The man can really still, in his own way, jump off the contact sheet and make one laugh,” she said. “He’s not here anymore, but they leave us with a whisper, an echo of who he is.”
Erina Duganne, Assistant Professor of Art History at Texas State University, visited the Ransom Center on a Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship for a month during the summer of 2011 to review photographs by Susan Meiselas in the Magnum Photos collection. This research relates to her forthcoming book that examines the act of bearing witness in photography from the 1970s through the 1990s. She is also presenting her findings on Meiselas at the annual conference of the Association of American Studies. The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for 2012-2013 fellowships. Duganne discusses her research here.
For this fellowship, I closely examined press photographs in the Magnum Photos collection that Susan Meiselas took of the insurrection that occurred in Nicaragua in the late 1970s. My interest in these images was twofold. I sought to determine how these photographs were trafficked in print media, as well as how Meiselas responded to these uses through her 1981 book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979 and her 1982 exhibition Mediations.
To facilitate this research, I first organized Meiselas’s Nicaragua photographs according to the story index number that was, in most cases, found on the recto of the images. Next I located the actual newspapers and magazines that published these photographs so that I could compare which images from a particular story were in fact published and how they were captioned. I then compared how Meiselas used photographs from the same stories in her book Nicaragua and in her exhibition Mediations. Through these comparisons, I sought to determine the historically specific ways in which Meiselas’s Nicaragua photographs were distributed by Magnum Photos, used by the print media, and then recontextualized by Meiselas herself. In so doing, my aim is to suggest not only how Meiselas responded to this trafficking of her photographs, but more importantly, how she attempted to use these two projects to make viewers as well as herself implicit in the histories to which these photographs and their circulation bear witness.
The Ransom Center recently acquired ten tintype images from photographer Robb Kendrick. Tintype printing is a historical photo technique that was used primarily during the nineteenth century. The tintypes acquired are each handmade and one-of-a-kind.
The acquired tintypes vary in subject matter from portraits to landscapes to cacti. Several of Kendrick’s photographs were taken on location for National Geographic, and many were taken for personal projects. Kendrick’s most recent wet-plate work documented the working cowboy for the December 2007 issue of National Geographic. The photographs were taken in 14 western states, Mexico, and Canada. These photographs were then collected in the critically acclaimed book Revealing Character.
Kendrick’s documentary photography regularly appears in National Geographic, but he also frequently works with wet-plate photography. Kendrick currently splits time between Austin and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with his wife and two sons.
Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
In October 1996, world-renowned photographer and author David Douglas Duncan donated his archive to the Harry Ransom Center. The Center has preserved, organized, cataloged, exhibited and made available a variety of images and artifacts that complete the archive, including many that document his years of friendship with Pablo Picasso. Recently, Duncan donated a plate painted by Picasso of his beloved dachshund named Lump.
The new exhibition Picasso at Work. Through the lens of David Douglas Duncan, runs through September 25 at the Museo Picasso, Malaga, and will then move to the Picasso Kuntsmuseum Munster from October 15 to January 15, 2012 and finally at La Piscine Musee d’Art in Roubaix, France, beginning in February 2012. Ransom Center photo archivist Mary Alice Harper’s essay “The Nomadic Lens of David Douglas Duncan,” featured in the exhibition catalog, has been published in English and Spanish by Museo Picasso Malaga, in German by Hirmer, and in French by Gallimard. Below is an excerpt from Harper’s essay.
In late January of 1956, Duncan set off to begin his next Life assignment. He was headed for Spain but with one detour in mind, stopping in Cannes to try and meet Picasso. Duncan was unsure whether or not he would find the artist at home, and, if so, be permitted to enter. In fact, he had intended to meet Picasso for years, ever since his friend and fellow photojournalist Robert Capa promised to introduce them. But Capa had died tragically in 1954, so Duncan decided to present Picasso with a gift when the time came. He had a ring made for the occasion: a solid but simple heavy gold band with “PICASSO—DUNCAN” incised inside and set with an ancient carnelian with a “Picassoesque” rooster carved on it. Picasso clearly appreciated the gesture as Duncan was permitted to enter. Three days later in a letter to a friend he described what had transpired:
The girl [Jacqueline] came down. Maybe thirty, black slacks and pullover… and wonderfully friendly. I’d thought that she might be the protective guardian type. Told her why I was there, and gave her the ring for Pablo P. She went upstairs, two at a time. I looked around. The place was jammed with crates, boxes, bronzes, cartons, barrels… they had been in the place for around half a year—not a single piece of furniture. Nothing! She came downstairs, grabbed me by the hand and up we went. No furniture. Whizzed through a series of corridors and rooms, followed a black electrical connection cord… into the bathroom, and there he was—cheerily lathering himself, in the tub! It was perfect! Pablo Picasso without much question, the greatest living artist of our century, black eyes dancing, warm and safe and wringing wet, in his bathtub. In went the ring, soap and all. She went on scrubbing his back… which she’d been doing when I arrived. Picasso and I talked in Spanish, she and I in English; I must have seemed naked, too, without my camera so he told me to get it, that the pictures, if I wanted them, might be interesting, since this was one place where no one had ever nailed him. From that moment on we had one of those times that I really shall treasure. After she dried him off and he pulled on a heavy bathrobe, we went into the next room… no furniture… where he got his glasses, and my magnifier, and then really looked at his ring… After carefully examining the stone, and carving… “What instrument could the man possibly have used?”, sort of a query to himself. Best of all he understood the reason why I gave it to him and accepted it exactly as intended. I feel that it delights him. We went downstairs. The front three rooms… only two tables, crammed with things he has made, painted, turned or twisted into life… The place was mine. Picasso and Jacqueline simply took me in as a third member… fourth, counting that boxer… Possibly it was an exceptional day, but he radiated one extraordinary quality… youthful exuberance; a child’s direct, intense feeling for the impact of those moments that we remember through the remainder of our years. This man still has it.
As part of the Harry Ransom Lectures, legendary Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt discusses his life and work tomorrow evening at 7 p.m. CST in Jessen Auditorium at The University of Texas at Austin. The program will be webcast live.
Steve Hoelscher, Chair of the Department of American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, shares his thoughts on the work and career of Erwitt:
Few photographers have had a greater impact on American visual culture than Elliott Erwitt. Even if you’ve never heard the name Elliott Erwitt, you’ve seen his pictures. Some are icons of photojournalism: Richard Nixon burying his finger in Nikita Khrushchev’s chest during their so-called Moscow “kitchen debate” in 1959; Jacqueline Kennedy, veiled and in distress at the funeral of her husband in 1963; the black man drinking out of a segregated water fountain, which became a symbol of racial injustices of the Jim Crow South. Likewise, his portraits of celebrities like Grace Kelley, Che Guevara, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Kerouac have achieved notoriety, but so too have his photographs of everyday life: a couple reflected in the side mirror of a car when they are cuddling; a young mother and her newborn daughter gazing affectionately at each other, much to the approval of a nearby cat. In these and in so many of his photographs, and with a keen sense of observation and finely honed wit, Elliott Erwitt illuminates the small moments of life, even when covering major news events. This is how he describes his craft: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
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Last month, the Ransom Center participated in and helped to sponsor an experimental documentary project from Magnum Photos called “Postcards From America.” The trip has now finished, topped off by a pop-up exhibition and reception at the Starline Social Club in Oakland. The show was terrific, and images from the trip, printed in a range of sizes, were taped up in groupings around the room. None of the images had credits, which forced everyone to really look at them. There were also two very long tables onto which were piled huge assortments of 4×6-inch prints from the trip, also presented anonymously. The prints had been made at a local drugstore, reminding us all that photographs are first and foremost acts of communication, meant for the widest possible audience. People spontaneously started grouping these images together into small sets, curating on the fly. Often, these images were combined with narrative texts from Ginger Strand, the writer traveling with the Magnum photographers.
This message was reinforced, just yesterday, when we received in the mail a set of signed postcards the photographers produced while on the road, one from each photographer. A thoughtful post on the “Postcards From America” blog by Strand sums it all up:
For the last several days, postcards have been rolling off Uncle Jackson’s two printers. There’s a lot of perfectionism around the postcards—choosing the right images, getting the colors correct—but in the end, it’s a naturally imperfect form. Whoever drops the postcards into the mail slot—whoever delivers them into the chutes and sorting machines and conveyor belts and plastic tubs and mail sacks and entirely human fingers of the United States Postal Service—that person is going to have to take a deep breath.
But that’s what a road trip is all about: the creative tension between the perfect, polished, product and the nature of the road: the fleeting glimpse, the passing landscape, the too-short message on a too-small card: look, this is what I saw.
They’ve been blogging about it since the end of March, so there’s already plenty to see and read. You can follow them on various social media sites, and you can even post your own images at the “Postcards From America” Flickr site. At the end they will be mounting a special exhibition of images from the trip at the Starline in Oakland, and they promise to include some of the follower-contributed Flickr images as well.
The idea was born at a retreat where Magnum photographers talked about, of all things, photography. It’s exactly the type of independent project that was behind Magnum’s founding by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, and George Roger in 1947. Established to preserve the copyright of their work, the Magnum cooperative agency thus secured perpetual revenue from the photographers’ imagery. This watershed moment in photojournalism thereby allowed the photographers to break free from the news cycle and pursue more in-depth and independent projects like “Postcards From America.”
The Ransom Center is excited to participate in this unique documentary event, which comes as an outgrowth of our relationship with Magnum Photos. In 2010 the Ransom Center joined in partnership with Magnum Photos and MSD Capital, LP to house some 200,000 original press prints from Magnum’s New York bureau. The Ransom Center has since created a preliminary inventory and opened the collection to students, faculty, and the general public. We continue to work with Magnum, including the Magnum Foundation, to add further research value to the collection.
The events on Friday, May 13, begin with a chance to informally meet and talk with the photographers between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. at their R.V., which will be parked on the north end of the Ransom Center plaza. This will be followed by a public discussion among the “Postcards” participants about photography and ways to picture America, held at 7 p.m. C.S.T. at Jessen Auditorium, Homer Rainey Hall, across the plaza from the Ransom Center. The program will be webcast live.
The collection highlights photographs taken of businesses in Corpus Christi during the Great Depression. The project to make these materials accessible online was funded by a TexTreasures grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act.
Until now, access to the collection was limited, due to the fragility of the collection material and its uncataloged status. The Center has now constructed a Web site as a portal to the itinerant photographer collection. It is an introduction to the collection and its imagery, and a searchable gallery of the 473 glass plate negatives provides a comprehensive exhibition of this physically fragile collection. All the imagery on this Web site was produced from the glass plate negatives. An online finding aid of the collection has been created as well.
In early 1934, a traveling photographer arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, searching for businesses that would pay him to take pictures of their establishments. Part photographer, part salesman, he went door to door offering his services. He left town after only a few weeks and abandoned his glass plate negatives with a local photographer because they no longer had any commercial value to him.
The images portray a wide range of businesses operating in Corpus Christi, which was relatively prosperous in the midst of the Great Depression, including those in the agricultural industry, retail and wholesale businesses, city and county government offices, manufacturing businesses, and those offering numerous types of services.
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The Ransom Center has received a $10,000 grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics to rehouse and rearrange its holdings of the Herschel family papers and to create an online finding aid.
The Herschel family papers, acquired in 1960 with subsequent smaller accessions of additional materials, largely represent the life and work of Sir John F. W. Herschel (1792-1871), the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor. John Herschel has been called Britain’s first modern physical scientist, and his correspondence has been noted as one of the most valuable archives for 19th-century science.
The Herschel family papers at the Ransom Center form a significant resource for the study of the history of science in general and also for studies in several individual fields, such as astronomy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The lives of the Herschels, their pioneering achievements, their interactions with other leading scientists of their time and their influence on their colleagues’ work are topics scholars may pursue in the papers.
The Herschel family papers will be closed to scholars during the duration of the grant, which runs through Dec. 31, 2011.