Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator of Photography at the Ransom Center and author of The Gernsheim Collection, discusses the lives of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim and the historical photography collection they amassed and later sold to the Ransom Center in 1963.
Listen to audio clips of Flukinger discussing the hunt for the first photograph, how the Gernsheims began collecting, and the negotiations that led to the sale of their collection.
In conjunction with the exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection, the Ransom Center and the University of Texas Press have published The Gernsheim Collection.
The Gernsheim collection is one of the most important collections of photography in the world. Amassed by the renowned husband-and-wife team of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim between 1945 and 1963, it contains an unparalleled range of images, beginning with the world’s earliest-known photograph from nature, made by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826. The Gernsheim collection includes 35,000 important and representative photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; a research library of some 3,600 books, journals, and published articles; about 250 autographed letters and manuscripts; and more than 200 pieces of early photographic equipment. Its encyclopedic scope—as well as the expertise and taste with which the Gernsheims built the collection—makes the Gernsheim collection one of the world’s premier resources for the study and appreciation of the development of photography.
Published to coincide with the exhibition at the Ransom Center, this volume presents masterpieces of the Gernsheim collection, along with lesser-known images of great historical significance. Arranged in chronological order, this selection effectively constitutes a visual history of photography from its beginnings to the mid-twentieth century. Each full-page image is accompanied by an extensive annotation in which Ransom Center Senior Research Curator of Photography Roy Flukinger describes the photograph’s place in the evolution of photography and also within the Gernsheim collection. Read an excerpt from the introduction in which Flukinger traces the Gernsheims’ passionate careers as collectors and pioneering historians of photography, showing how their untiring efforts significantly contributed to the acceptance of photography as a fine art and as a field worthy of intellectual inquiry.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In February, MSD Capital L.P., Magnum Photos and the Ransom Center announced that the collection would reside at the Ransom Center pursuant to an agreement with its new owner, an affiliate of MSD Capital, which had recently acquired the prints from Magnum Photos.
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The Stanley Burns tintype collection is a remarkable and rare assemblage of unusually large, hand-colored, American tintypes in period frames. With more than 130 items, this is one of the largest collections of its kind.
Portraiture in America has a long tradition. In the colonial era, painted portraits provided a historical record of prominent figures, while miniatures and silhouettes provided more intimate records of family members. As the middle classes prospered in the early nineteenth century, painted portraiture flourished. With the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, the face of portraiture started to change. The daguerreotype required one- to three-minute exposures, which were hard for people to hold, but as other photographic mediums were developed, such as ambrotypes and tintypes, photography began to replace painting as the standard technique for portraits.
Tintypes, like daguerreotypes, are one-of-a-kind photographs. There is no negative, as the image is exposed directly onto the substrate. The word “tintype” is, in fact, a misnomer, as iron, not tin, was used as the substrate. The tintype process was faster, cheaper, and produced a more accurate depiction than a painting, which led to its rise in popularity, especially with the middle and working classes. The necessary equipment and chemistry were portable and thus allowed photographers to travel, providing access to people in rural areas and to Civil War soldiers.
The Burns collection consists almost entirely of portraits, many of which are of individuals, including paired sets of husbands and wives. Additionally there are family portraits, some of which are “composite” images where the photographer reproduced earlier portraits of individuals into one group portrait, a method often used to include deceased family members. There are also many portraits of children, including post-mortem photographs of infants. Portraits of African-Americans and people in trade uniforms exemplify how photography helped democratize art by making it accessible to lower and working class citizens.
The tintypes in this collection are all painted, either with oil paints or watercolor. Some are painted heavily in a folk-art style while others have only minimal colorization. Tintypes were not usually painted, but doing so placed them within the tradition of painted portraiture and thus closer to being fine art. Painting them also made up for the poor contrast of tintypes and could make them appear more life-like. Most commonly, tintypes measured about two by three inches and were housed in paper display folders, but the ones in this collection measure six by eight inches or larger and are displayed in elaborate frames, another practice that helped raise the status of the photograph to fine art.
The frames in the collection are of equal importance to the photographs, and they represent a variety of styles—from the plain to the elaborate—and date from 1840 to 1910. Renaissance revival and federal revival styles are simple and elegant; rococo revival frames include scrollwork and flower motifs. Many frames in the collection are Eastlake style, named for the nineteenth-century British architect and tastemaker Charles Eastlake. These consist of ebonized or marbleized wood with incised geometric patterns. Aesthetic style frames, also well represented in this collection, are distinguished by the clarity of their molded designs with motifs inspired by nature. The collection also includes frames in tramp art and rustic styles, which are more simply decorated, carved-wood designs. The range of styles from simple wood constructions to elaborate gilt moldings reveal the social status of each photograph and, by extension, the subjects.
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In 1952, photohistorian Helmut Gernsheim rediscovered the first photograph lying forgotten in a trunk, 125 years after Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the famous image. “I held the foundation stone of photography in my hand,” Gernsheim 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.’”
Today, the first photograph is on permanent display in the Ransom Center’s lobby. In 2002, the Ransom Center and the Getty Conservation Institute began a collaborative conservation project for the first photograph. Dr. Shin Maekawa, Senior Scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, designed an oxygen-free display case to protect the heliograph from potential oxygen-induced deterioration. Both institutions regularly monitor conditions in the display case through a website, which logs oxygen, pressure, relative humidity, and temperature.
Maekawa returned to Austin in March to teach Ransom Center Photograph Conservator Barbara Brown how to maintain the case.
“We’ve been working on maintenance for the oxygen-free case in which the photograph is housed and presented,” Brown said. “This is something that needs to be done periodically. There have been no problems, but it’s always good to double-check the sensors every couple of years to make sure everything is running the way it’s supposed to.”
In addition to assisting Brown with maintenance, Maekawa also came to help the Ransom Center determine whether or not the first photograph could possibly tour.
“When you take a sealed case into an airplane, there’s a lot of pressure acting on the case. So the idea is [to find out] whether we can transport the case or not, and how we can go about it. Since I designed the case, being here will give me a better idea of exactly what other issues there are to consider. The main issue is to maybe build a special container for traveling,” Maekawa said.
The Blanton Museum of Art’s current exhibition Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporariesfeatures works from the Ransom Center’s photography collections. Blanton Associate Curator of Latin American Art Ursula Davila-Villa discusses the life and work of Álvarez Bravo.
One of the most fascinating aspects of photography is how images change the way we look at the ordinary in the world. Manuel Álvarez Bravo, a master in transforming the everyday into extraordinary images, worked during one of the most important and transformative periods in the history of Mexico. He was a prolific photographer who lived for 100 years. During the 1930s and 1940s, his photographs laid bare a city that saw rapid urban changes that reshaped the face of Mexico. Álvarez Bravo’s unique vision is characterized by intimate scenes that fused local and international artistic developments such as geometric abstraction and surrealism. In 1929, Edward Weston wrote to Álvarez Bravo: “photography’s fortunate in having someone with your viewpoint.”
Their relationship would later develop into a friendship that also included Tina Modotti. The three photographers would work in Mexico and document a country that would capture their minds and hearts. When Modotti was deported from Mexico due to her political activities, she gave Álvarez Bravo her Graflex camera as a gift. It was Modotti who introduced Álvarez Bravo to Eugène Atget’s work, which would become an important influence for Álvarez Bravo.
The exhibition Manuel Álvarez Bravo and His Contemporaries: Photographs from the Collections of the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton Museum of Art, on view at the Blanton Museum through August 1, features iconic images by Álvarez Bravo and his contemporaries (including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Walker Evans, and Edward Weston) drawn from the Harry Ransom Center and the Blanton’s collections.