Van Ryzin: Archives inform modern photographers’ work in Ransom Center exhibit

Jason Reed explains it as a moment of profound artistic connection that happened by coincidence — in an archive.

A fine-art photographer, a third-generation West Texan, Reed, 33, had been plumbing the collections at the University of Texas’ Ransom Center, delving into the center’s staggering archive of more than 5 million photographs in order to peruse the work of those who came before him and also trained their lens on the landscape of the Texas-Mexico border region.

While he waited for research staff to fetch a box of Depression-era images by Walker Evans, Reed spied a set of three-ring binders on a shelf in the Ransom Center reading room. The binders held pages and pages of captions describing more than 9,000 photographs by W. D. Smithers, a now often-overlooked photographer who spent the 1910s through the 1950s capturing life and scenes along the border.

Reed had never encountered Smithers’ work before. When Reed explored it, he found something remarkable: Smithers’ 1922 image of Study Butte near the West Texas town of Terlingua, a photograph that nearly mirrored a 2011 image of Terlingua that Reed had made.

“The discovery was stunning,” says Reed who teaches at Texas State University. “I grew up in West Texas, I spend all my time photographing it. Smithers and I are basically working on the same thing, just 80 years apart. And we essentially took the same picture.”

That kind of artistic connection and coincidence is the basis of an intriguing exhibit, “Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive” at the Ransom Center through Aug. 4.

Reed and eight other members of Lakes Were Rivers, an Austin-based photographers collective, paired their photographic artwork with material they each culled from the center’s vast holdings, making surprising connections between historical items and contemporary art.

The members of Lakes Were Rivers (the group takes its name from the fact that all Texas lakes save one, Caddo Lake, were formed from dammed-up rivers) all have individual artistic careers, but collaborate to organize exhibits and publish limited-edition books.

“You can complain or you can create your own scene and make your own place for your work,” says member Elizabeth Chiles, a lecturer in art theory at UT.

Each Lakes Were Rivers member was drawn to the Ransom Center’s photography collection — widely recognized as one of the best in the world — for individual creative reasons. But the center’s ownership of an 1826 heliograph made by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, and widely considered the world’s first photograph, had an undeniable pull.

“We love the history of the archive,” says Barry Stone, who along with Reed and Chiles will be giving a free tour of the exhibit at 7 p.m. Thursday.

“There’s a through-line you can see — a continuum of how photography developed in this slippery spot that’s somewhere between art and science.”

The current exhibit represents a milestone for the Ransom Center. It’s the first time the renowned library and archive has invited artists to organize an exhibit.

And the result is illuminating on many levels.

Not only do the Lakes Were Rivers photographers cull images that resonate with their own work, the nine midcareer artists all manage to reveal the idiosyncrasies that turn up in exploring an archive as massive as the Ransom Center’s.

Each contemporary artist has a separate section of the gallery, the well laid-out exhibit divided into nine parts. Reed, Chiles and Stone are joined by Leigh Brodie, Anna Krachey, Jessica Mallios, Sarah Murphy, Mike Osborne, Ben Ruggiero, Adam Schreiber and Susan Shahan. (The exhibit starts with six historical photographs of rivers and lakes, a clever preface of sorts.)

Not surprisingly, many of the Lakes Were Rivers crew selected the work of photographic luminaries and pioneers such Man Ray, Ansel Adams, Henry Peach Robinson, Arnold Newman and Eadweard Muybridge, among others.

But they also mind the archive for some surprising finds, evidence of how an archive can inspire and intrigue.

There’s a manuscript of Maurice Ravel’s score for the ballet “Daphnis et Chloë,” moon images made by robotic NASA cameras, an early X-ray, a 1873 album of photos of an arctic expedition.

Reed not only paired his photographs with Smithers’ photographs but with some of Smithers’ personal effects: books on West Texas flora, a lamp in the shape of a covered wagon, one of Smithers’ cameras.

Chiles mined the papers of 19th-century astronomer and early photographic experimenter John Herschel. She also pulled hand-colored etchings made by Romantic poet William Blake and the whimsically illustrated pages from the notebooks of poet E.E. Cummings.

Stone — who manipulates his digital landscape images by randomly rearranging a file’s digital code — selected Alvin Langdon Coburn’s 1917 “Vortograph” photo, a early experiment in modernist abstraction that seems to be a multidimensional image.

And yet to begin his section of the exhibit, Stone selected a 15th-century broadside illustration of a cluster of grapes that appear to have beardlike growth dangling from them, actually a kind of fungus.

It’s a somewhat odd, fantastical and anachronistic image for a contemporary artist to chose.

Or perhaps not. As Stone points out, that’s the beauty and the revelation that arises from delving into centuries of visual material: That you and your artistic colleagues are part of greater trajectory.

“I take comfort in knowing what I do is all part of some continuing (visual) language.”

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