Emily Talbot, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, received a dissertation fellowship to study nineteenth-century composite photographs by Henry Peach Robinson and his contemporaries in England and France. This research forms part of a larger project that considers the integration of photographic technologies and aesthetic standards into the production of works of art in other media. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
With the support of a Dissertation Fellowship at the Harry Ransom Center, I spent a month studying photographs, drawings, and other ephemera related to nineteenth-century British photographer Henry Peach Robinson (1830–1901). My dissertation project at the University of Michigan concerns relationships between photography and other media in the nineteenth century, focusing particularly on “hybrid” practices, such as painters who utilized photographic technologies or photographers who doctored their images with paint or pencil.
Robinson is a perfect case study for my project as he was one of the first and most famous practitioners of “composite photography,” an early form of photomontage that involved printing multiple negatives on the same sheet of paper. Composite prints are ambitious works of art that were intended to rival painting in their subject matter and mode of execution. Typically, Robinson would design his compositions in pencil or watercolor, later photographing each figure and landscape element separately before combining them into a single image in the darkroom.
The Helmut and Alison Gernsheim collection of photography at the Ransom Center is one of three major repositories of work by Henry Peach Robinson (the other two being George Eastman House in Rochester, New York and the National Media Museum in Bradford, England). However, because Helmut Gernsheim felt that it was important to understand a photographer’s artistic development in its entirety—an idea he notes in correspondence with Robinson’s granddaughter—the Gernsheims collected Robinson’s prints, drawings, and paintings in addition to the photographs for which he is best known. During my residency at the Ransom Center, I was particularly keen to study several rare photographic collages that Robinson made as preliminary studies for his composite prints. These half-painted, half-photographic compositions reveal Robinson’s artistic process to be a fascinating negotiation of painting and photography, imagination, and visible reality.
In my attempts to understand how Robinson conceived and created his pictures, I called upon the expertise of Barbara Brown, Head of Photograph Conservation at the Ransom Center. Together we examined 15 combination photographs, identifying and speculating about instances of handwork on the negatives as a result of painting on or masking over parts of the image before printing. During this study session I gained further appreciation for the complexity of Robinson’s technique. By making changes directly on his negatives, he left very little physical evidence of this manipulation on the prints themselves. Without being able to consult the negatives, the viewer must often guess how the image was made.
Rather than being an impediment to my research, this knowledge helps me to understand why many nineteenth-century art critics were so disapproving of composite printing. Landscape photographer Alfred Wall even described Robinson’s works as “ingenious fraud” and “contemptible shams.” Composite pictures trick the eye—the critic’s main tool of expertise—casting doubt on the reliability of photographic images and undermining the role of the critic altogether. As I move forward with my research, I intend to explore further this fraught relationship between seeing and making that is exemplified by the rich collections of nineteenth-century photography at the Harry Ransom Center.
Image: Henry Peach Robinson, Study for A Holiday in the Wood, salted paper print with applied graphite and watercolor, May 1860.
Margaret Denny received a Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship to conduct research in the Ransom Center’s Gernsheim collection. Below she shares some of her findings at the Ransom Center.
During the past decade, I have conducted primary research on Victorian women in photography, an investigation that culminated in my dissertation From Commerce to Art: American Women Photographers 1850–1900 (University of Illinois at Chicago, 2010).
My current project For Love and Money: Victorian women photographers in and beyond the studio follows a select group of nineteenth-century American and British women photographers operating in the commercial realm of advertising, photojournalism, studio portraiture, and travel photography. The importance of this investigation is that current scholarship on the history of photography has diminished the importance of commercial work; it likewise has overlooked women in the commercial sphere.
With a fellowship at the Ransom Center, I have progressed closer to realizing my project as a publication. In pondering this experience, several impressions stand out—the Center as a rich repository of photographs and ephemeral materials, and, co-equal, the Center’s proficient staff members and systems that provide a stimulating, nurturing, and collegial environment in which to explore one’s topic. Through the proficient and patient stewardship of Emilio Banda and suggestions proposed by Senior Research Curator Roy Flukinger and Associate Curator of Photography Linda Briscoe Myers, I was able to navigate smoothly through box upon box of photographs, biographical material, and memorabilia. Even the tradition of weekly coffees and a brown bag lunch for fellows offers scholars and staff opportunities to exchange insights and information.
The Gernsheim collection of Victorian and Edwardian photography amassed by Helmut and Allison Gernsheim in England at the end of World War II and purchased by the Harry Ransom Center in 1963 became the focus for this study. The collection holdings present a rich glimpse into elite British society through the studio portrait practice of Alice Hughes. I viewed the wealth and breadth of photographs made by Hughes at the turn of the twentieth century in her London studio. Having researched Hughes at the National Portrait Gallery in London, it was beneficial to evaluate this expansive number of photographs to build on my earlier inquiry.
Another chronicler of Britain’s elites, Kate Pragnell operated commercially in London in the 1890s. The Center’s illustrated article on Pragnell showed her photography in more of its original context. The fact that Pragnell hired only women workers in her studio and wrote about her practice makes her an interesting case study. These British women will be compared with the American photographers Frances Benjamin Johnston and Gertrude Käsebier as they shared the experience of being middle- to upper-class women who chose photography as a vocation. To investigate the media treatment of American and British women photographers, I reviewed issues of The Photogram published in England between 1894 and 1905 by American Catharine Weed Barnes Ward and her British husband H. Snowden Ward. Likewise, as a comparison to understanding opinions emanating from other journals of photography, I examined the issues of Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work, published from 1903 to 1917.
Equally germane to my investigation, the Center’s holdings contain over 350 photographs by British photojournalist Christina Broom. A documentarian of Edwardian fame, Broom photographed important British events from military maneuvers to Royal pageantry, most printed as picture postcards, a business that supported her family facing the loss of household income after her husband’s accident. In my project, Broom will be compared to Frances Benjamin Johnston, who operated as a photojournalist working with Bain News Service in America. Johnston’s assignments took her to Naples, Italy, where she photographed Admiral Dewey and his U.S.S. Olympia crew following their successful campaign in the Philippines during the Spanish American War. Equally notable, Johnston was the last photographer to photograph President McKinley, 17 minutes before his assassination in 1901.
As a seasoned researcher at a number of institutional archives, I feel the time spent at the Ransom Center put me in a more positive position to take my findings to publication. Because the staff made research suggestions beyond my original itinerary, I will be able to incorporate even more information in the study. As I continue to research the topic of women photographers of the Victorian Era into the Edwardian period, my larger goal is to develop the information into book format supported by a traveling exhibition. Having the opportunity to conduct research at the Ransom Center and to develop the narrative of women in the commercial realm of photography places me one step closer toward the realization of this major undertaking.