The Gernsheim Collection at the Harry Ransom Center


Copyright the artist and respective estates 2010 co-published by Harry Ransom Center and University of Texas Press

In 1963 the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas, Austin made a wonderful investment by purchasing one of three photographic collections amassed by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim. It was, and probably still is, considered one the largest and finest collection of photographs in private hands. The collection included 35,000 photographic prints from the nineteenth and mid-twentieth century, a research library of 3,600 book and journals, 250 autographed letters and approximately 200 pieces of early photographic equipment.

This book, The Gernsheim Collection, was published in conjunction with a large exhibition of this collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, which is the owner of the collection. As you might expect, this book provides only a hint of the breath and depth of this collection, as well as providing an exciting look at the history of photography.

I found that this collection, perhaps like most personal collections, directly reflecting the aesthetic tastes and opinions held by the Gernsheims, predominately by Helmut, who was at one time a professional photographer, and for a while, a member of the Royal Photographic Society. Helmut enjoyed landscapes, portraits, and especially architecture, which are well represented, but there is few if any fashion, news reportage or commercial photographs, which at the time the Gernsheims were collecting, were not really considered to be aesthetic photographs.

With a concentration on early English photographers, many of the names may not be familiar, such as Robert Hunt, George Cundell, John Shaw Smith, Sir William Crookes, John Spiller, and Benjamin Brecknell Turner to name a few. It was Helmut who early on became aware of the photographic body of work by the Rev. Charles Dodgson, who was better known by his literary name, Lewis Carroll. Helmut was also responsible for tracking down one of the earliest know photographic objects, the heliograph of Joseph Nicephore Niepce, which was created about 1826. The collection is also a reflection of fastidious and detailed research by Alison coupled with the dogged determination of Helmut and has provided us with historical information that might have been lost for the ages.

The essays by Alison Nordstrom and Mark Haworth-Booth complement the biography and narratives provide by Roy Flukinger, the book’s editor, which are a delightful and a relative easy read. Their thoughts are concise and flow evenly through this massive book.

The size of the book permits many of the photographic prints to be illustrated at scale, as well as appearing to have the original hue and tonality. Without the equivalent prints to compare, I think reading this book might be very similar to having the original object in your hands. For those with even a passing interest in the history of photography, I recommend seeking this photobook out, and you will soon become a master in photographic trivia pursuit.

by Douglas Stockdale

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