Photography is, for me, the medium with the most evocative possibilities. Other mediums might have more potential to move us on an emotional level, but only a photographic image can take us to a reality beyond ourselves. In making that sweeping statement, I acknowledge that from its early days, some practitioners have chosen artful manipulation over verisimilitude.
At the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, an exhibition of 152 images shows us the documentary power of photography from its origins in the 19th century through the mid 20th century. They have been culled by Jennifer Hardin, the museum's chief curator, from the vast collection of 12,000 given by Bruce and Ludmila Dandrew and Dr. Robert and Chitranee Drapkin over the last several years.
The great significance of the collection is as a scholarly study tool because it covers the history and technical form of the medium. It's fascinating to go along the gallery walls and mark the evolution from daguerreotypes and salt prints to gelatin silver and Polaroid prints.
More than that, though, these works open a window into times past. In an albumen print from around 1870, Western tourists sit on camels, with the Sphinx and a pyramid behind them; you can almost feel the heat and dust, and the folly of dressing in wool suits and near-brimless derby hats. That's the way it had to be back then, though: no tour buses and no shorts or open-collared shirts.
About two-thirds of the works are small portraits lined up in cases, representing a range of processes, though most are daguerreotypes. Daguerreotypes were the first commercial process and became hugely popular with the public. A recorded image of a loved one, friend or personage could be created in far less time and for far less money than a painted portrait.
Because the oldest ones are, well, old, they have a gravitas the newer ones don't. So seeing a snapshot of artist Keith Haring or President John F. Kennedy reminds us that many other examples, regardless of their age, were not necessarily important or meant to be seen by the public.
We could speculate, for example, that Sincere Friends, an 1850 portrait of two men sharing looks of tenderness, was a private acknowledgement of the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name since homosexuality at that time was illegal. So, too, we wonder about the circumstances under which the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky was shown with a "friend," a woman who looks adoringly at him and is decked out in silks and gold. He wasn't married, but the 1860s photograph suggests an intimacy that could have been scandalously illicit.
In the case of Sincere Friends, we have to remember that men a century or two ago felt freer to openly express a deep affection toward each other that had nothing to do with physical attraction.
In this group, we see the rich and famous and the poor and anonymous, the conventional and the freakish, all together (though all are also now dead) in one glass-enclosed community, attesting to the eventual equalizing nature of art, which doesn't care who you are for posterity but rather what you provide as the subject matter in a work of art.
History has been well served by photography, too. One of the grandest engineering projects of all time, the Panama Canal, was recorded extensively during both its French and American phases. In this show we see the thorniest part of its construction, an excavation called the Culebra Cut (now known as the Gaillard Cut) celebrated at its completion in 1913. We see the enormous scale and exquisite detail of the Paris Opera as it was being built in 1867 via stonemasons on the roof carving a frieze.
Early photographers emulated the popular genre of landscape painting, attempting to romanticize landscape as their fellows in the Hudson River School had done. But photography, back then anyway, had its limitations. Look at Frederic Edwin Church's painting of Niagara Falls in 1867, for example (you won't find the famous work in this museum, but maybe do an Internet search), with a circa 1880s albumen print of the natural wonder attributed to George Barker. In Church's work, foam and froth rise like steam from a geyser, a rainbow spans a corner of the painting and a cocking outcropping seems to have been "rearranged" by the artist. Barker (or whoever) didn't have a rainbow appear during exposure time — probably couldn't have captured it anyway since this was a black and white print — and certainly couldn't rearrange the boulders. It's a more straightforward take than Church's to be sure, but in its own way just as stirring. Because we know when we're looking at it, we're seeing the real thing. Or something as close to the real thing as another person's eyes can convey to us.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.