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.
Dr. Sherre L. Paris—lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism—teaches graduate and undergraduate students in her 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, students 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.
How does a class at the Ransom Center differ from one in a traditional classroom setting?
My understanding of a “traditional” classroom setting, as concerning environment and structure, is a lecture hall, where students sit in desks and the instructor presents a lecture. Our class, however, is designed as a seminar, which includes illustrated lectures, assigned readings, presentations of student responses to the readings, looking at and discussing photographs, and viewing primary materials. We learn not only about iconic photographs and famous photographers, but also about the methods and context of invention and process, and the uses and purposes of photography within culture and society. This inquiry finds substance in the unique materials available at the Ransom Center.
How did you choose to hold this class at the Ransom Center?
I did not have to choose it. Professor J. B. Colson, former head of the Photojournalism Department, recognized the value of using the Ransom Center materials, specifically the Gernsheim collection, in the 1970s. Colson was the first teacher of photojournalism in the country to design and incorporate courses in the history of photography, first into undergraduate photojournalism curricula, and then expanding the courses to include graduate seminars in theory and criticism. Because Colson had rare and unique access to the Gernsheim collection, he took his own slides of the materials before they were cataloged. As a result, his students saw slides of the primary sources, not slides from reproductions in books. As soon as was possible, I think in the late 1990s, the graduate seminars were held at the Ransom Center, and students were required to use primary sources for their research. Other teachers of variations of this class, and many students, have benefited from Colson’s precedent.
How does holding class at the Ransom Center enhance the undergraduate experience?
Given that our room immediately connects to the Reading Room where scholars and researchers work, our class is conducted in an atmosphere that lends credence to the study of the humanities. During this time when liberal arts education, particularly in the humanities, is under scrutiny, the Ransom Center’s world-class resources in literature, poetry, art, and photography can more than adequately justify the importance of that education and thus undergird and validate undergraduate pursuit. The Ransom Center is a place where hunger for that beautiful kind of learning that is difficult to quantify can be both whetted and satisfied.
Around what specific collections and materials do you focus the curriculum of “A Cultural History of Photography” (J387G)?
We use primarily the foundational Gernsheim collection for nineteenth- and early to mid-twentieth century photography, and then later additions. We use everything we can that is relevant to the course.
In what ways do the students engage with the Ransom Center’s materials?
Each class allows for the viewing of primary sources directly related to the topics at hand. The seminar table and the viewing shelves display materials on the side of the room. Students can use the white cotton gloves and turn the pages of Julia Margaret Cameron’s album of original wet collodian prints, or look at Walker Evans’s prints from “Now Let Us Praise Famous Men,” to a portfolio of Danny Lyon’s civil rights work. As part of their course work, they are required to use the primary sources for research papers and presentations.
Does J387G focus solely on visual materials, or does the course also incorporate written materials?
The course incorporates written materials. We look at manuscripts or archival written materials relevant to the visuals we study. We also consider many works that integrate text and image. Examples include Peter Henry Emerson’s “Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads,” a beautiful album of his platinotypes and poetic writings, John Thomson’s images in “Street Life in London” with Adophe Smith’s advocacy journalism, and James Agee’s manuscripts for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” We also examine the literature of photography pertaining to our topics: technical writings, autobiographical and biographical writings, contemporary criticism, news and magazine articles, etc.
What do you think your students glean from exposure to primary source materials?
It’s a kind of truth that only primary sources impart. This object that they can see and touch (with white gloves!) was created and exists in real time and space. To use the cliché, history comes alive.
Students learn that the precursor to the camera was the camera obscura. They see the earliest engravings illustrating the camera obscura and then look through a real nineteenth-century camera obscura.
Then there is the dramatic difference between the viewing and handling of the original object, and the second-hand, vicarious experience of seeing versions of the work in books or online. One gets no idea of the size or actual color or texture. The exquisite loveliness of a Hill and Adamson calotype or Emerson’s platinotypes cannot be reproduced.
In addition, there is the learning about the individual(s) who made the objects, and an awareness of the society and/or culture in which they were made. When students hold, and turn a daguerreotype just right to see the incomparable detail on its finely polished, mirror surface, only then can they begin to relate to the sensation, the transformation in visual consciousness, and the resultant “daguerreotypemania.”
Frank Luther Mott, Dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri in the 1940’s, wrote that there were 3 reasons people studied history:
• There are those who are devoted to history for history’s sake. To them the rightness of the record is the thing most to be desired.
• There are others who are interested in history because they find the men and women of the past and the conditions under which they lived quaint and strange, while many of the incidents of an older time seem as interesting as fiction.
• And there are those of a third class who look to history mainly for help in understanding present problems and for guidance in facing the future.
Given the changes and challenges presented by the digital era, I hope, through their experience with primary sources, students can glean an understanding of the place of photography in the history of human communication systems that may help them to understand its place in the future. I hope it all adds up to an experience that enriches beyond a semester’s duration.
Alan Furst’s 2008 novel The Spies of Warsaw has been adapted into a new miniseries. Starring David Tennant of Doctor Who fame, the series premieres in two parts on BBC America at 8 p.m. CST Wednesday, April 3, and on Wednesday, April 10 . Tennant plays Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a decorated French war hero who finds himself in a passionate love affair with Anna (Janet Montgomery), a Parisian lawyer for the League of Nations.
Furst, an American author, is best known for his historical espionage novels. In 2005 the Ransom Center acquired his archive, which contains drafts of his fiction and non-fiction works, as well as correspondence.
To celebrate the TV adaptation’s premiere, the Center will give away two signed copies of the novel The Spies of Warsaw. Email email@example.com with “Furst” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the book. [Update: This contest is now closed. A winner has been drawn and notified.]
View the teaser for the miniseries:
[Editor’s Note: This blog post corrects an earlier version with incorrect air dates for the miniseries. ]
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
Carson McCullers sets the scene for her stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding in this typescript page from her papers, held at the Harry Ransom Center. Here begins the story of Frankie Addams, a lonely 12-year-old girl who wants to find a place to belong—her “we of me”—by joining with her older brother and his bride. As you stand looking at this window, a portrait of McCullers herself can be seen not far away in the glass surrounding the Ransom Center’s northwest atrium.
Carson McCullers (1917–1967) is considered one of the significant American writers of the twentieth century. She is often compared to her contemporaries, the Southern female authors Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Katherine Ann Porter. McCullers, however, transcends the “Southern gothic” genre in her novels, plays, and short stories with their universal themes of loneliness and isolation. Her work is notable for its keenly observed cast of misfit characters.
McCullers’s body of work consists of five novels, two plays, 20 short stories, more than two dozen nonfiction pieces, a book of children’s verse, a small number of poems, and an unfinished autobiography. She is best known for her novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Café, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and The Member of the Wedding, all published between 1940 and 1946. At least four of her works have been made into films.
Soon after the 1946 publication of McCullers’s fourth novel, The Member of the Wedding, she began work on a dramatic adaptation. The project was interrupted by the first of a series of strokes that left the writer paralyzed on her left side, but in 1948 she completed the adaptation while staying with her friend Tennessee Williams in Nantucket. McCullers’s theatrical adaptation of the novel opened on Broadway in 1950 to near unanimous acclaim, and it enjoyed a run of 501 performances. The adaptation proved to be her most successful work, commercially and critically. It won the 1950 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play of the Season and the Donaldson Awards for Best Play and Best First Play by an Author.
During the final 15 years of her life, McCullers’s health and creative abilities declined. Her second play, The Square Root of Wonderful, closed after only 45 performances on Broadway in 1957, and her final novel, Clock Without Hands, drew mixed reviews. She died in 1967 after suffering a cerebral stroke.
In 1975 the Ransom Center acquired a comprehensive collection of McCullers’s materials, including drafts, revisions, translations, and adaptations of her works, as well as correspondence, photographs, and even personal objects such as her cigarette lighter.
Ransom Center volunteer Katherine McGhee wrote this post.
J. M. Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940 and graduated from the University of Cape Town. After working three years as a computer programmer in England, he enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin in 1965 to pursue his Ph.D. in English, linguistics and Germanic languages, which he earned in 1969. While at the University, he conducted research in the Ransom Center’s collections for his dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.
Coetzee’s archive now resides in the Ransom Center and is available for research.
Below, Coetzee writes of his association with The University of Texas at Austin.
Somewhere among the boxes of letters included in this collection is one from the Chair of the Department of English at the University of Texas to John M. Coetzee at an address in Surrey, England. It is dated April, 1965; it thanks young John for his application to come and study in Austin and is pleased to offer him a teaching assistantship at a salary of $2,000 per annum while he works toward a graduate degree.
Thus was initiated my association with The University of Texas, an association by now nearly half a century old. In the 1960s the Ransom Center already had a certain fame, worldwide, for having struck out into a new field for collectors, the field of living authors and their manuscripts. The word “brash” tended to find its way into comments on the Ransom Center and its activities, as did the phrase “oil money.”
I am not sure that such supercilious attitudes would find much traction nowadays. The present-day Ransom Center has custody of one of the world’s great collections of twentieth-century manuscripts, a collection that will bring scholars to Texas for many years to come.
It is a privilege to have graduated from being a teaching assistant at The University of Texas to being one of the authors whose papers are conserved here.
I write these words from my home on the south coast of the Australian mainland, an area prone to destructive bushfires. It is a secondary source of satisfaction to me that, even if this house itself goes up in flames, the work of my hands will have been whisked away to a place of safety in the vaults of the Ransom Center.