Monday, September 13, 2010

"Discovering the language of photography:" the Gernsheim collection

Official image of the "first photograph" -- Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's View from the Window at Le Gras (ca. 1826)

The University of Texas at Austin is offering a rare opportunity to see an image considered to be "the world's first photograph." Taken in 1826, the shadowy, indistinct image is almost invisible to the eye, but it is the centerpiece of a grand collection of 35,000 photographs, nearly 200 of which are currently on display at the Harry Ransom Center on the Austin campus through January.

The image, taken from an upstairs window over nearby rooftops and trees, is more correctly called a heliograph -- a picture traced by exposure to the sun on a metal plate coated with a substance called bitumen of Judea -- and made with a camera obscura by French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.

Niépce's simple, hazy landscape is the result of a chemical reaction, not a mechanical one, yet it began a revolution that encompasses most of today's visual media. The exhibit at the University's Harry Ransom Center is on display through January 2; called "Discovering the Language of Photography," this marks the first time the heliograph has been displayed since it was discovered in 1952 -- and then rediscovered years later by the collectors Helmut and Alison Gernsheim in their collection of 35,000 photographs, which had been purchased by the University.

The exhibit displays the enormous range of British and American photography over the past 175 years, many images which the Gernsheims had collected since the 1940s. David L. Coleman, the exhibit's curator, calls the collection arguably the finest in private hands -- works acquired by the Gernsheims in an era when photography was considered less than a high art. The University purchased the collection in 1963.

In addition to the exhibit, the University of Texas Press is publishing a companion volume with 125 plates selected by Coleman. From the book's preface: "The collection’s clearest strength remains its holdings in nineteenth-century British photography, including hundreds of images by such masters as David Hill and Robert Adamson, Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, and Henry Peach Robinson. The Gernsheims carried their passion for the medium into the twentieth century by also collecting significant works by modern photographers, such as Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Man Ray, Paul Strand, Albert Renger-Patsch, Edward Weston, and Henri Cartier-Bresson."

Winifred Casson, Accident (ca. 1935)

Along with photographs from the collection, the exhibition includes equipment, albums, correspondence and other manuscript materials that illustrate a visual history of photography from the earliest-known photograph to images of the mid-20th century.

The exhibit fulfills one of the Gernsheims' primary objectives in archiving photography: "without any enthusiasm depositories for huge photographic collections simply [existed] because there was no other place," they are quoted in the preface. "This has only led to dead departments. Photographs must be exhibited, researched on, written and lectured about, and made easily available to the public, other wise [sic] their whole purpose is lost."

1 comment:

Régis NORY said...

Quelle photo intrigante que celle de Winifred Casson