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Ransom Center rolls out historic photo exhibit

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Helmut and Alison Gernsheim hang photos for an exhibition at Detroit's Wayne State University in 1963.

Three stories unfold in one sprawling exhibit now at the Ransom Center.

One charts the history of photography, beginning with the very object that claims title to the world's first photograph: a heliograph made about 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.

A second tale reveals the determined couple — Helmut and Alison Gernsheim — who not only built one of the greatest collections of photography but also passionately promoted photography as an art form.

And a third narrative emerges: how, in 1963, the Gernsheims' remarkable gathering of 35,000 photographs landed in Austin at the University of Texas.

On view through Jan. 2 and organized by curator David Coleman, "Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection," is the Ransom Center's first comprehensive exhibition of the Gernsheim Collection in the nearly half a century since UT acquired it. Until a 2003 renovation gave the Ransom Center's hulking building its first truly accessible exhibit space, public showings of the collection were limited. And yet, no serious scholar of photography could go without a visit to Austin.

Now, nearly 200 photographs, dozens of pieces of historical equipment and some of the Gernsheims' revealing letters disclose a fascinating story. Equally important, the exhibit is accompanied by a comprehensive catalog published by UT Press that lays out the Gernsheims' compelling story along with more than 100 photos from the collection.

In our digital era, we might have forgotten that photographs were once objects, not just pixels in cyberspace. But nothing reminds us better of photography's "objectness" than the historic lineage of photos that roll out chronologically in the exhibit. One exhibit case is filled with small daguerreotype portraits, each in a wooden frame faced with red velvet, the kind of portraits typically given to loved ones. There's a Victorian family scrapbook of mounted photographs surrounded by fanciful drawing. And then there's the larger prints of early 20th-century photographers such as Fritz Henle, Henri Cartier Bresson and Cecil Beaton.

All of photography's ever-progressing methods are here, too: heliograph, daguerreotype, salted paper print, chromatype, calotype, albumen print, carbon print, platinum print, photogravure, gelatin silver print. That one art form went through so many chemical experimentations reminds us that for early experimenters, the goal behind photography's development was just as much scientific as artistic.

Negotiating that schism between science and art brings the second story behind the exhibit to the fore.

When Helmut Gernsheim began collecting in 1944, his views set him apart from his peers in the photographic community, which focused on science and technology, not art. He believed that not only was photography an art form, but that the artistry of the camera was to be found in the individual wielding the camera. His was a modernist approach: unsentimental and determined to see photography recognized as an "independent art," not a mechanical art strictly for commercial purposes.

Trained as a historian in his native Germany, Helmut Gernsheim learned photography in order to have a skill that would allow him to flee in the 1930s as the Nazis came to power and his Jewish heritage came under question. Landing in London, he was given some photographic commissions, but his status as a "friendly enemy alien" meant he was deported to Australia for much of the war. Nevertheless, he managed to publish his first book, "New Photo Vision," in 1942, in which he promoted photography's creative status.

Back in London by the end of the war, and now accompanied by wife Alison, Helmut Gernsheim embarked on a singular task to build a historically based photo collection. With his wife engaged in much of the research and correspondence (as well as supporting the couple's efforts with her salary as a secretary), Helmut Gernsheim set out on the hunt for the best photos he could find. That he could do so on such modest means seems remarkable now. But photographs were not a sought-after collectible at the time, and the upheaval of World War II meant many private collections and archives were divided and sold.

Letters in the exhibit reveal not only Helmut Gernsheim's determination to collect but also the deprivations of post-war London. In a 1949 letter to a Chicago collector, he negotiates a sale of photographs that seems to also have included Spam as payment: "We are very much looking forward to the Spam as we have not had any for the past three years and never any ham since before the war."

That Helmut Gernsheim was well aware of the value and importance of what he was doing is the third story that emerges from the exhibit.

From the beginning, he was determined that his collection would one day garner a museum of its own, and he writes as much in a 1952 letter to Norah Pritchard, the owner of the now-famous Niépce heliograph, while not-so-subtly asking if she might consider just giving the priceless object to him. (Pritchard did, in the end, though letters in the exhibit reveal how her nephew and executor tried to reclaim it once it was declared the world's first photograph.)

Helmut Gernsheim's fierce determination to find a home for his collection seems to have only been met by Harry Ransom's fierce determination to build "the Bibliothèque Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation."

Ransom's correspondence to Helmut Gernsheim constitutes the bulk of the story of how UT got the world's first photograph and more. About all that remains of Helmut Gernsheim's side of the negotiations is the five-page type-written inventory he made in 1961, which details the value of everything in his collection — even those items deemed priceless. Reads one line item: "The world's first photograph. Priceless, say £25,000.")

Though Helmut Gernsheim put a total value of £700,000 on his collection, Ransom paid only $300,000 after the couple went through numerous struggles and negotiations with other institutions. Helmut Gernsheim's careful record of the institutions he approached over the years shows that UT was far down on the list after British, European and American organizations.

Ransom flatly turns down his request for salaried positions — and pensions — at UT for him and Alison, telling the collector that such a thing is "against Texas law." And as for that museum solely devoted to the Gernsheim Collection? "It is completely outside the realm of possibility that we could devote state money to this purpose," Ransom writes.

Helmut Gernsheim might not have gotten his own museum in Austin. But with this exhibit, the best of his collection receives center stage.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

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‘Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection'

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Fridays (Thursday until 7 p.m.), noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Jan. 2

Where: Ransom Center, 21st and Guadalupe streets, University of Texas campus

Tickets: Free

Information: 471-8644, www.hrc.utexas.edu

Curator's tour: 7 p.m. Dec. 7. David Coleman, the Ransom Center's photography curator, leads a free exhibit tour.

The Gernsheims revisited

A massive 8-pound volume features 126 full-page images from the collection accompanied by a short essay that clearly explains each photograph's place in the history of the medium as well as background information on the photography. The volume starts with Flukinger's thoughtful, sensitively written history of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, which unravels the remarkable story of how the determined couple — against all odds when they started in post-war London — built their 35,000-photograph collection and established themselves as champions for photography as an art form. Plunging into the Gernsheims' vast correspondence, Flukinger has unearthed fascinating details of the complex couple, whose overriding passion for photography as an art form led them to find a suitable permanent home for their ‘child,' as they called their collection.