SARASOTA — Exhibitions featuring iconic historical photographs can be risky. Unlike paintings, they are made in multiples and often for print publications with wide distributions. We have seen the most famous ones many times. And the argument that is made about seeing a painting in its original form as a very different experience from seeing a reproduction isn't as valid with photography. Classic photographs are, after all, identical multiples (as opposed to those manipulated to be different each time one is printed) so seeing the translation from newspaper or magazine page is never as dramatic as it is when seeing a painting on a gallery wall.
Would you go to a museum just to see the famous 1945 Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square after victory over Japan had been declared?
Probably not. And not because it isn't a great photograph. It's because you believe you already know it well enough.
So museums rarely build shows around a single photograph as they might a painting or sculpture.
They need breadth and depth. And a good organizing principle.
Which is a lengthy way of saying that "Images from the Warren J. and Margot Coville Photography Collection" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is most worthy of a visit even though it contains many familiar images.
As an important collection, it contains the mandatory players — too numerous to list — represented by some of their most well-known work.
Matthew McLendon, Ringling's curator of modern and contemporary art, has exercised sensitivity and creativity in organizing the familiar into thematic arrangements that aren't always bound by chronology and give us new avenues for comparison and consideration.
It's a small extract, 89 photographs, from a gift of 1,000 that spans more than a century, with examples of techniques that propelled photography forward and photographers who witnessed defining moments, large and small.
There are a few 19th century photographs, such as an 1888 albumen print of the Eiffel Tower under construction by an anonymous photographer and an 1867 photogravure portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron, which is the oldest in the exhibition. The most recent ones were taken early in the 21st century, at the site of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the day the towers fell. But most cover the century in between, when photography came into its own as both documentary and art forms.
It opens with an acknowledgement of collector Warren Coville, who is a retired professional photographer and businessman. During World War II, he was assigned to bomber units stationed in England and rode on B-17s, photographing their missions. A few of those photographs by him and his colleagues, along with a self-portrait, are included, as is an example of his post-war work, of hundreds of yellow umbrellas climbing a wall in a Japanese department store that reads like a vivid abstraction.
Coville and his wife, Margot, were clear in wanting good representation in the main photographic categories of photojournalism (spontaneous and news-oriented), pictorialism (more artistic and planned) and portraiture. They often overlap, as in Eisenstaedt's photograph of Winston Churchill at a political rally.
Among the many examples of McLendon's juxtapositions is one that combines photographs 80 years apart and illustrates the grim conditions inherent in much manual labor. Lewis Hine's Breaker Boys is heartbreaking, documenting a group of boys covered in coal dust, stopping for the 1911 portrait in a Pennsylvania mine during what is inevitably a long, grueling, low-paid and dangerous day of work. (Photographs such as these were part of child-labor reform.) Nearby is a 1991 photograph taken by Sebastiao Salgado of oil-encrusted workers in a Kuwait field trying to cap a well head that Iraq soldiers had set ablaze during the Gulf War. It's another image of filthy, grueling and dangerous work: The metal was so hot that touching it with another piece of metal would have incinerated the workers. But we assume that at least they were well-paid for the risk.
Another grouping illustrates Henri Cartier-Bresson's Decisive Moment with a 1948-49 Cartier-Bresson image of children peering from the window of a Chinese store selling paint brushes as well as Gordon Parks' 1948 Daylight Rumble taken, most likely, in Harlem and Roy DeCarava's 1962 image of a well-dressed matron taking a photograph in Rockefeller Plaza with an expensive camera and expensive handbag on her arm.
The haunting finale of the exhibition isn't literally at the end of it. Several photographs taken on 9/11 are the last in the Covilles' collection and not for the dramatic reason their date might suggest. They're old-school photography enthusiasts, and contemporary photography, all digitized and computerized, holds no interest for them, according to McLendon. Still, what a way to bring down the curtain. Many more people died in events to which this exhibition bears witness, but the Twin Towers tragedy is still so fresh that seeing again the photograph of a man in the middle of a free fall after jumping from the burning building is almost unbearable.
But that's one of the roles of photography, to make us look, even when we would rather look away. And also to see what we might otherwise have missed, whether harrowing or beautiful.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.