Friday, December 31, 2010

George Bernard Shaw and Helmut Gernsheim: Notes On The Gernsheim Collection At The Harry Ransom Center

George Bernard Shaw, famous playwright, was born in 1856 and died in November 1950.  Throughout his life, he took photographs to record events and to express himself artistically.  He said:

"If Velasquez were born today, he would be a photographer and not a painter."

In 1949, Helmut Gernsheim, engaged in producing a history of photography, submitted a series of questions to Shaw.

The typed questions and Shaw's handwritten answers are on display at the Ransom Center, along with a 1950 letter from Gernsheim, with handwritten reply by Shaw.

In his answers, Shaw writes that he is still actively taking photographs, something he has been doing for most of his life.  He lists the different cameras he has used over the years. The beauty, strength and wit of the replies, written so near Shaw's death, are striking.

In the letter shown here (photographed with i-phone by Matt Spitzer), Gernsheim tries to get Shaw to agree to let Gernsheim look through Shaw's photos, to select some for Gernsheim's book on the history of photography:

Gernsheim pleads:  "I won't disturb you in your work; in fact, you need not see me if you don't want to!"

Shaw says no:
"Quite out of the question.  You would have to ransack the whole house: a week's hard work.  They are not collected and catalogued.  Keep off."  [Signed, GBS 5/6/1950.]

From Gernsheim exhibit at the Ransom, through January 2, 2011.

Shaw's photographic legacy is being cataloged in the project,  Man and Cameraman.  Apparently, a great deal more than "a week's hard work."

[Shaw is famous for so many sayings;  I invite you to leave your favorites in the comments]


  1. I went to brainy quotes. Lots of pages on Shaw. Maybe thats what my new year's resolution should be. Memorize pithy quotes that I can sprinkle in conversation. Shaw and Oscar Wilde to start with.

    I'm serious. I know one person who had the ability to pull up quotes and I found it absolutely charming.

  2. PA, you have excellent taste in witty aphorists: Wilde and Shaw, two of the best.

    As for new year's resolutions, I've been avoiding making any. Probably very zen of me.

  3. I didn't know Shaw enjoyed photography. I find it quite fascinating since I always think of him as such a master of words.

  4. Margaret, first he wrote about it, then he started doing it himself--and apparently, never stopped.

    If you went to visit him, I think you got photographed.

  5. This is a fine find on GB Shaw!!

    While it's still 2010 here, lemme wish you a prosperous New Yr to you & your blog, JS!

  6. Thanks, pup. And to you and yours, too.

  7. Some new food for thought this Year of the Rabbit, 2011: words AND images. I'm sure you had a delightful time at the exhibit.

  8. Well, Shaw was rather a character. (And this is just from an English Lit course that I remember from UCLA), his mother supported him until well into his 40's; his belief being that genius should always be supported, especially by those who have none.

    I believe, though married to an heiress, he spent a great deal of time trying to woo Mrs. Patrick Campbell (in letters, only). She once wrote to him, "when you were quite a little boy somebody ought to have said 'hush' just once."

  9. Interesting quote about Velasquez.
    Your post warrants a bit more time investigating the I'll be back.

  10. Paula, it's the year of the rabbit, for sure, at your house.

    Second time at the exhibit. This time, I read some of the correspondence. It is fascinating. I'm just sorry I didn't get snaps of some of the other letters. Ansel Adams had gorgeous stationery.

    And GBS actually had more to say about his Valasquez statement. I think it's fairly clear, in the context of criticism, that Shaw was promoting a newish art form and legitimizing it.

  11. AH, there are so many anecdotes that revolve around Shaw. Quite a character. And shutterbug.

    I'm guessing, the hushes just bounced off him.

  12. Shanna, makes me want to do more research about this, too.

  13. Very enjoyable! I don't much about Shaw.

  14. Me neither. I loved the correspondence.