Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Helmut Gernsheim

Gernsheim was a photography historian and collector. A German Jew, he escaped to England just prior to the outbreak of WWII. As a ‘friendly foreign alien’ he was interned with other German nationals in New South Wales, Australia where he wrote his first book New Photo Vision.

Helmut Gernsheim recognized very early on that the medium of photography could stand as an art form in its own right, and he devoted much of his life to rigorous research in the field. In 1945, he laid the cornerstone for the now-famous Gernsheim Collection with his discovery of long-forgotten masterpieces from the early years of photography. Ultimately this collection, along with an estimated three to four million words of notes on the subject led to his writing the 180,000 word book The History of Photography. When the first edition was published in 1955 it became an instant classic and the definitive reference work for historians of photography for decades afterwards, being described by Beaumont Newhall as "a milestone in the history of photography."

It was Gernsheim that rediscovered the long-lost hobby of Lewis Carroll when in 1947 Helmut stumbled across an album of Carroll's portraits in a junk shop. But his most important contribution was the rediscovery in 1952 the ‘first photogragraph’ taken from his view from the window at Le Gras in 1826 or 1827 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. This established that it was Niépce, not Daguerre, who first discovered a method of preserving the photographic image. This photograph is now in the Gernsheim Collection at the University of Texas at Austin.

Gernsheim has played a very important part in the history of photography but this is really a long way around getting to what I really want to talk about.

In reading Dialogue With Photographers, in the interview with Gernsheim he recounts a story about comments on a print at the Royal Photographic Society that I found interesting. He doesn’t give a date but it would have been in the late forties or very early fifties since he resigned from RSP in 1952. Gernsheim had a much more modern view of photography than was generally accepted by the membership. He recounts that he was often asked to sit on the exhibition committee for political reasons. With his presence no one could suggest that the more modern thinkers were excluded from the process. They knew that he would always be out voted by (his term) the ‘old fogies’. He tells a tale about one of the members calling him aside at one such committee meeting and showing him some superb pictures of sand dunes—rippling sand in strong light, divided by deep shadows, very graphic. Gernsheim was asked how he felt about the pictures to which he replied, “We should be honored to have the great man in our company.” Then the member pointed at the shadows and muttered, “No details whatsoever. I don’t think he will get an exhibition.” And he didn’t. The photographs were by the American photographer, Edward Weston.

The conventional impediments that I so frequently rail about are well ingrained into the fabric of photography.

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