Raymond Adam Biswanger Slide Collection of Literary Landscapes
Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell Brontë
Background on the collection by Raymond A. Biswanger, IIIMy father, Raymond A. Biswanger, Jr., was born in the Philadelphia section of Frankford, Pennsylvania in 1922 to Raymond A. Biswanger, Sr., and his wife Jean. He attended Frankford High School and then went to the University of Pennsylvania, where his education was accelerated by the combat needs of World War II. He married my mother, Jane Ann Vowler, in 1950 in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania.
My mom said that Dad began his photographic hobby on their 1952 trip to Europe, when he took dozens of slide photographs (including one of Winston Churchill emerging from 10 Downing Street) and they all turned out well. That gave my father confidence to continue taking slide photos, and he continued the series of literary and historical subjects he had begun in Europe. Authors soon became a principal preoccupation.
Our family vacations were often planned around his photographic quests, with many stops and detours being made along the way to take one more picture. These frequent detours and stops gave a whole new meaning to the phrase, "Are we there yet?", and Dad would sometimes leave us for a day at the beach to capture more images. In 1952 my family moved to Athens, Georgia, where Dad taught in the English department until 1961. Gridiron great Fran Tarkenton was one of his students. My father got to know Robert Frost because he would stop off at a University of Georgia faculty member's house on his yearly wintertime escape to Florida. My mother remembers his gentlemanly manner and piercing blue eyes. Frost autographed a complete book of his poetry for my father exactly to the day five years before his death.
While traveling through Mississippi, my father went to William Faulkner's home of Rowan Oak and had an encounter with the writer himself. My mother says they measured their words carefully because the writer had a reputation of being drunk most of the time, but Faulkner allowed Dad to take his picture and was most desirous that Dad would take one of him on his favorite horse, Tempy. Faulkner asked for a copy of the finished photos, and Dad sent them to him, although the writer never acknowledged their receipt. During a visit to photograph a John Updike homestead, my parents met his mother (herself a published writer), who allowed them to take pictures of her and invited them inside, where they took pictures including a Karsch photo of John Updike on a side table with flowers beside it. Mrs. Updike was photographed barefooted---a woman "after my own heart," my father said. Another photographic trip led to a meeting with John Dos Passos' widow, who was still very pretty in her old age, my mother recalled.
In 1961 Dad accepted the chairmanship of the English Department at Slippery Rock (Pa.) State College, where he remained through the end of his career. Although Dad was largely a self-taught photographer, he did study great artworks and took a summer course in art appreciation at the University of Georgia in the mid-1960s. At Slippery Rock he was a member of the camera club, along with members of the Art Department and other faculty members. At evening gatherings members would frequently show their slides, and I can remember the slides sometimes being shown upside-down so that the pure composition of the image in line and balance could be studied in a more detached way.
Dad liked to teach classes early and finish by noon, if he could, to devote himself to his interests (after a daily nap). In addition to photography, they included his stamp, coin, and currency collections (all U.S.-based), an extensive investigation into his family history (which resulted in friendships with, among others, John Bardeen, a Nobel scientist who was a distant cousin also researching his ancestry). The Biswanger family emigrated from Germany in the 1840s and became active in Philadelphia textiles, running a carpet mill until the time of World War I. Dad's father, uncle, and aunt were all secondary-school teachers, and Dad went to the University of Pennsylvania with the eventual goal of becoming a college professor of English literature. As noted above, World War II intervened; Dad graduated in three years and spent the remainder of World War II on landing ships that participated in the invasions of Okinawa and the Philippines. During his Navy days Dad read the complete works of Shakespeare and used to listen to classical music on a phonograph aboard the ship. After the war he got two masters (one in English, one in teaching at his father's urging) and wrote his dissertation on Restoration playwright Thomas' D'Urfey's Richmond Heiress. His research produced a variorum edition of the work that attempted to reconstruct the original text based on its several versions.
Dad wrote the writer John Cheever when he discovered that Cheever had used the name Biswanger in his story "TheSwimmer," asking him where he got the name. Cheever replied that he couldn't recall, but he regretted attaching such a catalog of faults to the name because a true Biswanger is obviously magnanimous and forgiving. During the late 1950s Dad liked to take his best images and arrange them by authors. He used metal trays to store his slides at this time and liked to place the images between small panes of glass. To prevent damage from dampness, he baked metal containers filled with sodium silicate and placed them in the boxes with the slides. The slides were never stored in an attic but always in the house and always away from light. For his metal boxes, Dad built fancy knotted pine bookcases in the late 1950s. The tallest of them had doors at the bottom that could contain metal boxes two deep and two across from the bottom of the case to the shelf above that carried literary books. Later, carousels were used, and Dad stopped mounting his slides behind glass.
Dad's earlier indoor shots were generally not as good as his outdoor photography, owing to the flash bulbs he was required to use with the film equipment of the day. He did enjoy posing his family (me and my brothers Steve and Scott) in artistic poses, including a photo of me as a baby making a move at a chess set and one of my brother Steve in his high chair with an open book of Plato's philosophy in front of him. The camera with the big flash reflector did make an impression on me: I used to use a metal ice cream scoop as my camera, pushing its "trigger" to take imaginary photos. Dad used an Argus camera in the 1950s and a light meter that had multiple "eyes," something like an insect's. The camera and meter in their leather cases were usually right under his driver's seat ready to be used whenever he came across an interesting subject. By the time of his sabbaticals in the 1970s, he had switched to a more modern and self-metering camera.
When he went to homes or cemeteries, Dad would often wait hours for the sun to break from behind a cloud or move so that it illuminated the proper face of a building or grave marker. Dad was not above improving his subjects, and he sometimes adjusted veterans' flags or moved leaves and debris off graves to obtain more artistic shots. Once he was home, Dad would discard poor or out-of-focus images and sometimes opened the cardboard holder of a slide to straighten an image or improve its cropping by moving the film in the holder. He brought a similar passion to his hobby of stamp collecting and often evened the perforations of valuable stamps by trimming them with a razor blade and small hammer.
Dad knew poetry well and often could find himself reciting long quotations, particularly at parties when a cocktail or two made him a little less self-conscious. His knowledge of verse often informed his photographic subjects, and he sought out sites in his travels that inspired the great poets and writers. Although Dad preferred literature written before the 20th century and tended to concentrate on subjects who were deceased and thereby fully definable, he did not neglect contemporary writers in his photographic expeditions. Dad disliked trends in English-lit education and steadfastly refused to teach courses in the history of the detective novel or other popular subjects, always preferring the classics.
In 1976 Slippery Rock granted him a yearlong sabbatical--something of a rarity at that time of tightening budgets--largely based on the strength of the academic value inherent in his photographic quests. My parents went to Europe during much of that time and traveled around the Mediterranean with my brother Scott. A second sabbatical took place in 1983, after which Dad retired. Like his father, who was also an extensive European traveler, Dad kept diaries of his travels in Europe that covered his daily exploits. Dad often gave lectures to his students or academic audiences showing highlights of his collection in a program he called "Homes and Haunts of American Writers." Occasionally his photos would be published, including a cover of the Slippery Rock University faculty newsletter and even in a Close-up in TV Guide that featured a Biswanger photo of a monument to Roger Williams in Providence, Rhode Island.
Toward the end of his life Dad would devote one or two weeks a summer to take long drives by himself, often in the Midwest. He would arrange unlimited-mileage rentals from car companies and head out on expeditions long planned in his head, through extensive reading and marking of maps with sites he wanted to photograph. He was often proud of the thousands of miles he was able to put on a car without incurring extra charges. An interest in the expedition of Lewis & Clark was part of the focus of some of these trips, as were interests in Presidential subjects and Midwestern writers. Before his death from a heart attack in February 2006 at age 83, Dad was actively involved in scanning all his slides, in part, as a way of sharing his collection with others, and completed all but perhaps 4000 of them before his death. My mother says he was very concerned that he would not finish this project before he died, and he devoted a good part of each day to continuing the work.