In 2022, friends of the Ransom Center, along with Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Leonard Maltin, celebrated our 65th anniversary, establishing an endowment to fund the Robert De Niro Curator of Film position and advancing understanding of the humanities through the Center’s extraordinary film collection. [Read more…] about Celebrate with us in 2023
Off the Page
by LAURA WILSON
In late fall of 2008, I met John Updike and liked him—And thought then I’d like to do a portrait of him. But I dithered, and he died the following January before I had the chance. Earlier, I had seen some photographs taken by Dennis Stock of Updike in 1962 on the beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Updike, in street clothes, was at the edge of the waves, trying to get as close as possible without getting wet. The pictures were like stills from a home movie of a famous grown-up playing a children’s game by the sea.
Updike’s abrupt death prompted me to begin photographing writers in earnest. Over the course of 12 years, I was lucky enough to photograph some of the most influential writers of our time, women and men who will leave a lasting literary legacy.
We’ve all seen writers on the dust jackets of their books. These portraits, it seemed to me, generally failed to convey either character or personality. Writers deserve better. I wanted to make compelling pictures that would stick in the mind’s eye. My own photographic style is informal, inspired by the classic photo-essays of Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith in LIFE magazine in the 1940s and 1950s. So, I set about taking candid shots, as well as more composed pictures.
I chose each person for the quality of their work. As often as not, I had never seen a particular writer before we met. But as I began to edit the film, I saw immediately that no matter how each one appeared to me at first, when they came before the camera, they all appeared exceptional. Their faces were full of meaning.
What is it that gives them such presence? How is it that writers, unlike any other group I’ve photographed, are so calmly centered, so seemingly free of anxiety? Don’t most of us feel a certain level of discomfort when being photographed? But these writers seemed able to part the curtain of self-doubt. They were all highly accomplished and well aware of their reputations. Of course, having a portrait made takes little of the toll of writing. But what made these writers unusual, I believe, was their ability to go beyond the “picture face” that most of us present to the camera, to dig into themselves to reveal something of the human predicament. Tom Stoppard gave me 15 minutes on a London sidewalk, when usually I would have had hours or days. We spent eight of those minutes searching for a quiet location in Covent Garden that would be suitable for the portrait. Once we found the spot, Stoppard looked directly into my camera, and in less than a minute, I knew I had the picture. The playwright had given me a gift—a look filled with emotion, heartbreaking and wonderful.
I made a portrait of each writer, then added photographic reportage to show where each person lived or worked or gathered with friends. Their private territories were full of objects and details that reflected their daily lives, those things that inspire and comfort them. By showing a combination of portraits and snapshots, I hoped to create a fresh series of pictures for each writer and provide insight into their singular personalities.
All the writers lived in interesting houses; some were uncommon, others were splendid, none was mundane. Their houses were in cities, in the countryside, by the sea, and even in remote borderlands. Not one of the writers seemed to have simply landed in a place by accident. Their locations were as specific as their writing styles. Upon visiting many of them at home, I found each to be visual in the extreme. And I was never disappointed, finding invariably a person of wide-ranging curiosity whose surroundings reflected a perceptive eye.
To give my subjects an idea of what I needed, I showed them a selection of photographs I’d taken of other writers for the book. Each of them seemed to enjoy looking at the pictures of the others, moving slowly through the entire batch. Holding one photo, Peter Carey noticed a tiny figure of Colm Tóibín, walking by the Irish Sea, barely recognizable in the far distance. “Oh, is that Colm?” Carey asked. Then, the next picture: Tóibín up close, sitting in a chair with his arms on top of his head, looking directly into the camera. “Ah, yes, you got it! Colm has such a good face.”
Sam Shepard asked, “May I keep this print?” When he looked at the photograph of Thomas McGuane on horseback. “He was really good to let me fish on his ranch.”
Gabriel García Márquez looked through all the photographs without a word, finally holding up one of August Kleinzahler dancing a little jig down the aisle of Amoeba Music in San Francisco. With a quick shake of his hand, he let me know this particular shot surprised and amused him.
Carlos Fuentes said that throughout history, people had been faceless until photography was invented. He used the word revolution. People had a face for the first time, an identity. As I watched the writers’ reactions as they looked through my photographs, I sensed they felt as I do about photography—it’s magic. Tim O’Brien even practices magic, entertaining his two sons with a magician’s skill. O’Brien said that for him, writing is another form of magic—invention, transformation, sleight of hand, all taking reality to another level—just like a photograph.
The rainy morning when I photographed Jim Crace on Mount Bonnell, about 700 feet above the Colorado River in Austin, he was reciting to himself lines from a Philip Larkin poem about photography and memory and lacerations of the heart. Larkin wrote that “the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.”
The writer takes up his pen, the artist his brush, the photographer his camera, each intent on halting the passage of time, the disappearance of memory. Pablo Picasso caught the brutality of the Spanish Civil War forever when he painted Guernica, just as Robert Capa, with his grainy, blurred images of the invasion of Normandy, recorded for all time the pitiless slaughter of men at war.
For me, photography has always been a way to stave off loss… loss of family, loss of place, even loss of memory. We know life is finite. “Death is the great Maecenas,” Carlos Fuentes said, “the great angel of writing.” To work to record, to preserve what we saw and heard and felt, is the strongest impulse of the creative mind, a defiant gesture against time. The true artist is driven to take pictures, or arrange words, or draw lines. So much of life, of creativity, comes from the desire for permanence.
Laura Wilson’s photographs have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and London’s Sunday Times Magazine, among others. She has published six books of photographs and text including Avedon at Work, Grit and Glory, That Day: Picture in the American West, and From Rodin to Plensa.
by HARRY RANSOM CENTER
Photographer Laura Wilson has photographed some of the most influential writers of our time. Drawn from her new book, The Writers: Portraits by Laura Wilson (Yale University Press, 2022), the exhibition at the Ransom Center is a selection of her powerful portraits documenting highly accomplished, award-winning writers. Immersing herself in each writer’s own personal setting, Wilson reveals the details that have inspired their literary masterworks.
In the galleries, visitors can view stunning photographic portraits of authors such as J. M. Coetzee, Jim Crace, Rachel Cusk, Edwidge Danticat, Louise Erdrich, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Tim O’Brien, Zadie Smith, and Tom Stoppard, among many others.
“Do these photographs get at the question every writer is asked a thousand times within a life span—what makes you write these books?” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louise Erdrich (The Night Watchman, 2020) in the introduction to the Wilson’s book (she also is one of Wilson’s subjects). “These photographs make writers seem suspiciously normal. Yet something happens when Laura Wilson goes back to her photography studio and we sit down to write. We tap into the ancient pleasures of storytelling and at the same time take on the human struggle against the obvious.”
The exhibition will be on view through January 1, 2023.
TOP IMAGE: Tom Stoppard in London, 2019. © Laura Wilson
Charting a Path
Sixty maps and other prints of South Asia and the surrounding region have recently arrived at the Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin in honor of former professor Susan G. Hadden. Generously donated by her husband, James Hadden, Jr., the newly acquired Susan G. Hadden Collection of Early Maps of India contains maps dating from 1540 to around 1880, and together they track developments in cartography and the rise of European trade, colonization, and ultimately empire in the region.
The Hadden collection’s earliest map is a two-page woodcut that was printed as part of Sebastian Münster’s Geographia (Basel, 1540), a Latin version of Ptolemy’s widely printed and adapted Geography. It is the first printed map dedicated to illustrating the Asian continent as a whole. In it, only four cities within India have been identified, all on the western coast, all sites of early Portuguese settlement and/or trade.
One of the most significant maps in the collection was first published only 30 years later: a copy of Abraham Ortelius’s map of Southeast Asia from a later sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century edition of his Theatrum orbis terrarum, the book famously recognized as the first modern atlas. Printed from an engraved copperplate, Ortelius’s map stands in contrast to Münster’s, naming dozens of ports along the full coast of the Indian peninsula along with numerous cities in the interior.As the maps advance from the seventeenth century through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth, they show further European encroachment and then colonial rule at the hands of the British East India Company and, ultimately, the British government itself. One map from 1851, for instance, uses hand-coloring to highlight the division of “British India” into the three Presidencies of Bengal, Madras, and Bombay and differentiates between towns that were home to military and civilian stations. It also includes the path of a proposed rail system, one with routes that differ from the ones ultimately built.
The maps’ collector, Susan G. Hadden (1945–1995), was born in Austin, Texas. Not long after her birth, her family moved across the country when her father, Nathan Ginsburg, took a faculty position in physics at Syracuse University. Once grown, Hadden obtained degrees from Radcliffe College and the University of Chicago, ending up back in Austin as a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Center of Asian Studies at The University of Texas. She worked at the university from 1979 until her death.The M.A. and Ph.D. in political science that she earned at the University of Chicago brought her to a fruitful career working in public policy on a wide range of issues. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, she became a recognized expert in telecommunications, serving as an adviser to former Vice President Al Gore on public access to the internet. She never forgot, though, the passion that had been sparked when she received a gift from India while in grade school. At Radcliffe, she studied Sanskrit with Harvard University professor Daniel H. H. Ingalls, and she published research on pollution control in India well after pivoting to policy.
When Hadden was approaching the end of her time as a doctoral student, her parents took an extended vacation in Europe. While traveling, they purchased maps to give their daughter as a present when she finished her degree. Hadden went on to build a significant map collection, using what she had amassed to decorate her home and, once in Austin, her office.
The articles, catalog clippings, purchase receipts, and correspondence with map dealers that accompany the collection show Hadden’s diligence in learning about maps—and acquiring them—from the early 1970s and into the early 1980s. A 1977 letter from a bookseller appears to indicate that Hadden at one time hoped to compile a bibliography describing every published map of India.
A letter from the previous year reveals that Hadden initially missed out on a copy of the Ortelius map mentioned above, one that had been on offer from the Austin-based bookseller Walter Reuben and Company. In a letter to Hadden, Reuben associate Henry Taliaferro writes, “We have finally located another copy of the Ortelius map of the East Indies,” offering it to her for $300. An off-center and somewhat blurry Polaroid photo of the map accompanies the letter, and two follow-up receipts—and, of course, the map itself—show that Hadden followed through with the purchase. One receipt suggests that she had been so eager to secure an Ortelius from Reuben that she put down a $100 deposit to ensure that she was offered the next one to become available.Now at the Center, the Hadden maps supplement and extend our existing Kraus Map Collection, which features European maps and globes from the late Middle Ages to the end of the seventeenth century. We are confident these additions will prove to be an asset in University of Texas classes and to researchers. Two of the Hadden maps, in fact, have already been seen by thousands of visitors to the Center: We recently exhibited the Münster map of Asia and a section of a globe by Vincenzo Coronelli in our Stories to Tell gallery as part of “Printing the World in Premodern Europe.”
Dr. Aaron T. Pratt is the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at the Ransom Center.
Image: John Rapkin, British India [map], in The Illustrated Atlas, and Modern History of the World, ed. Robert Montgomery Martin (London: John Tallis and Company, ca. 1851). Susan G. Hadden Collection of Early Maps of India, Harry Ransom Center.
by LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI
The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are bigger than himself
and the things he sees
are his reality
Drunks in doorways
Moons on trees
The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes
Chickens in Chinatown windows
their heads a block away
The dog trots freely in the street
and the things he smells
smell something like himself
The dog trots freely in the street
past puddles and babies
cats and cigars
poolrooms and policemen
He doesn’t hate cops
He merely has no use for them
and he goes past them
and past the dead cows hung up whole
in front of the San Francisco Meat Market
He would rather eat a tender cow
than a tough policeman
though either might do
And he goes past the Romeo Ravioli Factory
and past Coit’s Tower
and past Congressman Doyle
He’s afraid of Coit’s Tower
but he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle
although what he hears is very discouraging
to a sad young dog like himself
to a serious dog like himself
But he has his own free world to live in
His own fleas to eat
He will not be muzzled
Congressman Doyle is just another
The dog trots freely in the street
and has his own dog’s life to live
and to think about
and to reflect upon
touching and tasting and testing everything
without benefit of perjury
a real realist
with a real tale to tell
and a real tail to tell it with
a real live
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (American, 1919–2021) was a poet, essayist, activist, and co-founder of San Francisco’s City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. He was also a prolific visual artist. The Ransom Center recently acquired a collection of Ferlinghetti’s sketchbooks, paintings, drawings, and prints, including original cover designs for two books of his poetry. A sampling of this acquisition, a generous gift and partial purchase from the Lawrence Ferlinghetti Artworks Trust, is on display this fall in the Ransom Center’s gallery.
Image: Photo of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights Books editorial office, San Francisco. Copyright © 1984 by Allen Ginsberg, courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg Estate and used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.
by GEOFFREY S. SMITH
A Fragment Makes History
A few months ago, I received a much-anticipated email that read, “The courier is scheduled to deliver the Willoughby Papyrus to the Ransom Center tomorrow.” The next morning, I anxiously watched as members of the Center’s conservation staff carefully removed from the oversized shipping package a small black archival box, no more than 8 inches square. They slid off its sleeve, opened the protective cover, and placed the object on the table in front of me for inspection. Mounted between two plates of glass was an ancient papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, no larger than a credit card.
The manuscript was fragmentary, and some of the Greek letters were not easy to make out, but it had not suffered any damage since I had last seen it in person, nearly seven years earlier. I could finally breathe a sigh of relief. The “Willoughby Papyrus,” as it is known, had made it to The University of Texas safe and sound.
The world first learned about the Willoughby Papyrus in January of 2015, when it appeared for sale on eBay in a no-reserve auction with bidding starting at $99.99. Within hours, the listing caught the attention of scholars worldwide who blogged about it and shared links to the auction on social media. While manuscripts do appear on eBay from time to time, this was not a typical listing. In contrast to the crude forgeries that surface on the site, the Willoughby Papyrus looked authentic. It also did not resemble the illicit papyri that occasionally appear on eBay, unmounted, unidentified, and often sprinkled with a suspicious layer of dirt, as if recently pulled from the sands of Egypt.
Instead, the Willoughby Papyrus sat in an older professional mount and included a label identifying it as John 1:50-51. Greek papyri of the New Testament are rare—today only 141 have been published, and among these, only about 30 contain the Gospel of John. Yet because Greek papyri tend to be the earliest New Testament manuscripts, they are among the most important for establishing the original words written by the New Testament authors. Could this be an authentic and legitimate papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John? The listing seemed too good to be true, but I had to learn more about the manuscript.
I couldn’t let the papyrus slip into private hands. Something like this belongs at a university or in a museum, where it can be properly conserved and made available to experts for study.
I immediately contacted the seller. During the course of a lengthy email exchange, a fuller story began to emerge. The owner discovered the papyrus in his attic. It was among a jumble of papers he’d inherited years earlier but only recently decided to look through. In the owner’s words, “I recently took time to go through [the suitcase] and [the papyrus] fell out from a stack of letters/papers.” The owner thought it would fetch a few dollars on eBay, but he was not prepared for the onslaught of attention it received. His inbox was flooded with emails from scholars like me trying to find out more about the papyrus, as well as wealthy private collectors offering exorbitant amounts of money to “buy it now.”
The seller also disclosed that the papyrus once belonged to Harold Willoughby, professor of early Christian origins at the University of Chicago. Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Willoughby worked with his colleague Edgar J. Goodspeed to acquire manuscripts from dealers and private collectors in the United States and abroad for the University of Chicago. Willoughby would even recall an experience that “brought gangland suddenly near,” when he purchased for the university a Greek lectionary that was formerly used as an oath Bible for patrons of Colosimo’s Cafe, a Chicago restaurant owned and operated by notorious mobster Jim Colosimo. The seller provided documentation that the papyrus belonged to Harold Willoughby, who died in 1962, which meant that the fragment fully complied with the 1970 UNESCO convention of cultural property.
I couldn’t let the papyrus slip into private hands. Something like this belongs at a university or in a museum, where it can be properly conserved and made available to experts for study. After further discussion, the seller agreed and ended the auction before it sold. He graciously allowed me to
inspect the fragment and publish some preliminary findings.
The papyrus itself turned out to be as exceptional as the circumstances of its discovery. One particularly interesting feature is its format: The Willoughby Papyrus is the first known example of a New Testament papyrus written on a scroll. The vast majority of New Testament papyri take the form of the codex, that is, the book in its modern format.
The few New Testament papyrus scrolls that do survive are written on the back of existing scrolls. They are not scrolls by design, but instead take the form of the book they are repurposing. But the scribe of our papyrus seems to have wanted his copy of the Gospel of John to be a scroll. Christians are well known to have been early adopters of the codex, even while Jews and non-Christian Romans seemed to prefer the scroll. But since the first Jesus followers were not yet members of a distinct Christian religion, but members of a sect within Judaism, scholars surmise that there must have been a time—very early on—when New Testament writings were routinely written on scrolls. As the sole example of a Greek New Testament papyrus copied onto the front side of a scroll, the Willoughby Papyrus has much to reveal about Jewish and Christian relations in the ancient world and the history of the early Christian book.
This fragment has much to teach us about Christianity’s early centuries, and thanks to the generous support of a UT alum, the Willoughby Papyrus now has a permanent home in the Harry Ransom Center, where scholars and visitors alike can view and study this remarkable early Christian artifact.
Image: The Willoughby Papyrus, a manuscript fragment from the third or fourth century CE containing text from John 1:49–2:1.
The Ransom Center’s Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge Papers Project won the 2022 Archival Award for Excellence from the Texas Historical Records Advisory Board (THRAB) “for outstanding contributions to archives and historical records in the State of Texas.”
Through the project, thousands of records were digitized and published online for researchers. Hall and Troubridge are remembered as LGBTQ pioneers, and Hall’s 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, made lesbianism more visible in English society, despite the banning of the novel in England.
“The Hall-Troubridge project represents the type of multidisciplinary and technologically advanced archival effort that helps make primary sources more accessible and meaningful,” Texas State Archivist Jelain Chubb said.
More than 60,000 digitized items and a new educational resource based on the Hall-Troubridge papers were added to the Center’s online digital collections last year with support provided by a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. The grant program is made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Created in 2016, the Archival Award of Excellence recognizes significant achievements in preserving and improving access to historical records in Texas. THRAB serves as an advisory body for historical records planning and supports efforts to preserve and provide access to archival collections throughout the state.
Funding for THRAB is provided by the National Historical Publications Records Commission, the grant-making arm of the National Archives and Records Administration. The state archivist is appointed by the governor to preside over the nine-member board.
The Texas State Library and Archives Commission provides Texans access to the information needed to be informed, productive citizens by preserving the archival record of Texas; enhancing the service capacity of public, academic and school libraries; assisting public agencies in the maintenance of their records; and meeting the reading needs of Texans with disabilities.