Thursday, January 6, 2011

Revisiting a Favorite Haunt

I should have mentioned this earlier so that those interested could have made it to the photography exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center at UT. But I forgot about getting there myself until it nearly was too late, and now it is.

The HRC is one of my favorite haunts in Austin. I spent hours as a graduate student in photojournalism at UT three decades ago, doing grunt work in the bowels of this vast repository. As a teaching assistant, I helped catalogue photographs from the morgue of the New York Journal-American, a dead newspaper whose 3 million photographs are part of the HRC’s holdings. There were black-and-white photos of murder scenes, tens of thousand of mug shots, grip-and-grin check-passing photos — a visual history of that city from the 1930s through the mid-1960s.

The exhibit, “Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection,” highlighted one of the HRC’s most famous acquisitions and provided a rare glimpse of photographs from the media’s early history — including the first photograph taken by Joseph Ni├Ępce in 1826. It is a courtyard scene in a small French village. The exposure took eight hours. The photograph is barely visible from its pewter surface when one views it from an angle. Its value, of course, is that it is the first photograph.

I wandered the exhibit, hung throughout several spaces. Several photographs are so rare and sensitive to light that they hung draped with a velvet cloth that one lifted in order to view the image. Some of the stars of the show included Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson — better known as Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice in Wonderland.” Dodgson was an avid photographer. Down the wall is a study by Eadweard Muybridge of a nude man swinging a baseball bat in 1887. Muybridge used photography to study motion and eventually proved through multiple photographs shot in time sequence that at some point when a horse gallops all four hooves are in the air. Leland Stanford, the namesake of the famed California university, paid him to prove it. Stanford, a former governor, owned horses. I figure he was trying to win a bar bet.

Since I was already there, I took a quick look at the Gutenberg Bible, the first major book printed on a press. The University’s copy is one of just five complete copies in this country. UT bought it in 1978. I never tire of looking at this magnificent piece of art and history, printed more than 550 years ago. Johann Gutenberg launched the information revolution with his press. I still love to hear a press starting up, ink flying on to paper using essentially the same principle.

Other exhibits in recent years that have drawn me to the HRC include one drawn from the papers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — the two Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story and brought down a president. Their efforts and subsequent fame — especially from the movie, “All the President’s Men” — spurred an entire generation of now-middle aged folks to enter journalism, including me. Of course, with a bachelor’s in philosophy, English and history I was unqualified for anything else.

The manuscript to “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, typed on a continuous scroll of paper and stretching 120 feet, was the centerpiece of “On the Road With the Beats,” a 2008 exhibit. As the HRC’s website notes, the end of the scroll — and thus Kerouac’s original ending for the book — is missing. Kerouac blamed a cocker spaniel owned by a friend for the missing pages. The dog indeed ate his homework.

The next exhibit, “Culture Unbound — Collecting in the Twenty-First Century,” starts on Feb. 1 and runs through the end of July, showcasing material from some of the country’s finest contemporary writers. A companion exhibit celebrates the life of playwright Tennessee Williams.

Visiting the HRC, which is just north of Dobie Mall on Guadalupe, only costs the gasoline required to get there. Donations are appreciated but no admission is charged. There are darned few things that are still free these days. (Getting one’s eyeglasses adjusted at an optometrist’s office comes to mind.) Keep the HRC on your list if looking for a pleasant few hours soaking up some culture. Park either in the Blanton Museum’s parking garage for a few bucks, or in the Bob Bullock State History Museum’s lot for free and get a bit of exercise hiking up the hill. It’s worth the trip.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), January 6, 2011.


  1. Hi, Gary!

    I also worked in the HRC when I went to UT. I was a studrnt assistant to Dr. Ransom.

    Among other things I did was to open and try to catalog many boxes containing most of the patent models submitted to the US Patent Office from about 1830 to about 1890. In there was a 'small' [23 inches by 25 inches by 7 inches] all brass model of a printing press. Unfortunately, it has been dropped on a few occasions and it did not work. A skilled machinist could have probably made it work again.

    It was amazing to see all the prosthetic devices and 'inovative' coffins that were submitted during the Civil War era.

    In another area of the HRC was a then Mark Twain story called "A Murder, A Mysery and A Madam" hand written by Twain in a little blank book in pencil. Yhe Atlantic Nonthly magazine wrote an article about this story about 8 or 9 years ago.

    Did you do your photography research in the big barn out at the Defense Research Center? If so, did you see all the burlap bags filled with uncut gemstones from South America? As I recall, they were placed in the center aisle at the end of each row. My memory of that place is that it was very similar to the warehouse shown at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or of "Warehouse 13."

    Anyway, thanks for the trip down memory lane...

    Jay, in Lufkin

  2. Whoops! I left out the word "unpublished" between 'then' and 'Mark' in the 4th paragraph.


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  4. Thanks, Jay. No, my research was somewhere in the HRC, seems like the third or fourth floor. They kept a pretty close eye on me, so I didn't wander around much. But I sure enjoyed my time there.