The Gernsheim Collection is one of the most important collections of photography in the world. Amassed by the renowned husband-and-wife team of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim between 1945 and 1963, it contains an unparalleled range of images, beginning with the world's earliest-known photograph from nature, made by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826. The Gernsheim Collection includes some 35,000 major and representative photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; a research library of some 3,600 books, journals, and published articles; about 250 autographed letters and manuscripts; and more than 200 pieces of early photographic equipment. Its encyclopedic scope—as well as the expertise and taste with which the Gernsheims built the collection—makes the Gernsheim Collection one of the world's premier resources for the study and appreciation of the development of photography.
Published to coincide with a landmark exhibition staged by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which owns the collection, this volume presents masterpieces of the Gernsheim Collection, along with lesser-known images of great historical significance. Arranged in chronological order, this selection effectively constitutes a visual history of photography from its beginnings to the mid-twentieth century. Each full-page image is accompanied by an extensive annotation in which Roy Flukinger describes the photograph's place in the evolution of photography and also within the Gernsheim Collection. Flukinger also provides an enlightening introduction in which he traces the Gernsheims' passionate careers as collectors and pioneering historians of photography, showing how their untiring efforts significantly contributed to the acceptance of photography as a fine art and as a field worthy of intellectual inquiry. Appreciations of the Gernsheim Collection by Alison Nordström and Mark Haworth-Booth confirm its singular importance as a collection of outstanding breadth and depth in the history of photography.
When The University of Texas at Austin purchased the Gernsheim Collection in the summer of 1963 it was the largest, and arguably finest, collection of photographs held in private hands, made up of some 35,000 photographic prints representing several hundred artists. 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.
Helmut and Alison Gernsheim were also pioneering historians of photography, for they researched and wrote more than 30 books and more than 200 articles based on this collection. Indeed, the history of the origins of photography cannot be told without the Gernsheims’ most significant (re)discovery: a heliograph taken by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826–27. The Gernsheims touted this landscape view taken from Niépce’s upstairs window as “The World’s First Photograph,” and as such, this unique and remarkable object represents the foundation for photography, film, television, and video.
As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the collection’s acquisition by The University of Texas, it is appropriate to celebrate it through this volume, The Gernsheim Collection, which is part of the newly established Harry Ransom Center Photography Series, scholarly editions drawn from the photography collections at the Ransom Center and published by the University of Texas Press.
At the heart of this volume are two sections authored by Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator of Photography at the Ransom Center, who has worked with the Gernsheim Collection for forty years. The first of these is a long biographical essay that examines Helmut and Alison’s careers as collectors, historians, and exhibitors of photography. Flukinger develops a complex portrait wherein Helmut Gernsheim’s overriding passion for photography as an expressive medium shaped him as a historian, as a collector, and ultimately as one who energetically struggled to find the collection a suitable permanent home.
Flukinger has also selected 126 photographs for the plate section to illustrate highlights from the collection, and he has accompanied them with texts that provide the images’ history, significance, and special attraction to the Gernsheims. Scores of masterpieces from photography’s first 150 years are included, plus many rare examples by lesser-known artists whose contributions are nonetheless seminal to the history of photography.
Alison Nordström and Mark Haworth-Booth have made contributions to this volume as well. Nordström, Curator of Photography at the George Eastman House, has written an elegant piece that encourages us to consider the complex relationship between the Gernsheim Collection and the histories of photography that the Gernsheims wrote from it. Haworth-Booth, former Senior Curator of Photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum, recalls Helmut Gernsheim’s “unreasonable” personality, a quality that simultaneously made Gernsheim a pioneering spirit and a difficult colleague in the field of photographic history.
To all of those contributors the Ransom Center is enormously grateful and appreciative, for they have brought a fresh perspective not only to the Gernsheims, who built this fine collection, but also to the collection itself. The Center is also grateful to those who have supported the production of this book, without whom it would have been impossible to carry it through to its present form. Foremost among these is The Hite Foundation, which has generously supported this publication in memory of Sybil E. Hite. Generous funding has also been provided by Janet and Jack Roberts, Jeanne and Van Hoisington, Margaret Hight, and William Russell Young III. We also wish to thank DJ Stout and Julie Savasky, at Pentagram, who have designed this handsome volume.
Since the beginning of the Gernsheims’ collecting in the 1940s, their collection fostered dozens of books and hundreds of articles. Since its arrival in Austin in 1963, it has further served as a source of scholarship for generations of students and faculty at The University of Texas as well as for historians, curators, collectors, and countless others. It is our hope that The Gernsheim Collection will inspire future scholarship from those interested in all aspects of the humanities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
David L. Coleman
Curator of Photography, Harry Ransom Center
Series Editor, Harry Ransom Center Photography Series
Roy Flukinger is Senior Research Curator of Photography at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. He lectures and publishes extensively in such fields as regional, cultural, and contemporary photography and the history of art and photography. He has produced nearly fifty exhibitions ranging from classical photohistory to contemporary photography, and from photographer's retrospectives to American, regional, and Texas photography.
Alison Nordström is Curator of Photographs at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, where she is also the USA director in the MA program in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management with Ryerson University. She is editor of the academic journal Photography and Culture, London. She has curated more than one hundred photographic exhibitions and is widely published.
Mark Haworth-Booth served as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) from 1970 to 2004 and helped to build up its great collection of photography. He is now an Honorary Research Fellow at the V&A and a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art. His latest book is Camille Silvy (1834–1910): Photographer of Modern Life.