Thursday, May 24, 2018
Opinion

Hooper: Hillsborough marks 100th anniversary of historic photo collection

Everyone ends up with a favorite.

Or two or three or 10.

Rest assured, no one who adores Tampa Bay, appreciates art or cherishes history can explore the Burgert Brothers Photographic Collection without storing at least one snapshot in the mental scrapbook.

The Friends of the Hillsborough County Library maintain an archive of nearly 15,000 Burgert Brothers photos that capture all manner of images, from bustling downtown street corners to festive Gasparilla celebrations to thriving businesses — some dating back to the late 19th century.

Its digital collection of the photos rivals any museum, and since it gathered the remaining negatives and images in 1974 — some were damaged by heat and age — it has painstakingly preserved this remarkable treasure trove.

Now the "Friends" celebrate a Burgert Brothers 100th anniversary with a series of events, starting with a gala at the University of Tampa's Plant Hall on Friday (Sept. 22). While the photos date back to the 1800s, and the Burgerts' arrival in Tampa came just before the turn of the century, 1917 marks the year brothers Al and Jean Burgert bought the commercial photographic studio of pioneering photographer William A. Fishbaugh and opened their own business.

In the ensuing decades, the Burgert Brothers Commercial Photography Studio rapidly rose to become Tampa's premier commercial photographic firm.

Bill Harris, principal librarian with the Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library, stands among the legion of fans of the collection and he, too, has his favorites, including an 1882 snapshot of the corner of what is now Kennedy Boulevard and Florida Avenue.

"It's just a bunch of old houses and dirt roads," Harris said. "When you see how Tampa was way back then, you could have never thought of Tampa as it is now."

The appreciation of the Burgerts' work is rooted in both artistic and social greatness. Harris notes the photos, particularly those shot by the brothers, reflect an attention to detail and artistic quality.

From a societal perspective, it's worth noting the Burgerts' photos feature all aspects of Tampa's society, including African-Americans and Hispanics. Their photos reflect a diversity before diversity even existed in our everyday lexicon.

Ersula Knox Odom used Burgert Brother photos and original snapshots from local residents to produce a collection entitled African-Americans of Tampa. She grows poignant when asked about the Burgerts.

"These photographs connect faces to cherished stories of Tampa's pioneers," Odom said. "They were real people, they were once young, and they look like people walking among us today. The photos offer an opportunity for our families to talk about people whose names may never have been uttered.

"When the names are spoken, the people live again — in our hearts."

It's such heartfelt appreciations that the Friends of the Library celebrate. On Friday, it partners with the Henry B. Plant Museum for the 6 p.m. gala, but it's also planning other commemorations. With Hurricane Irma disrupting the original schedule, the gala will now be followed by lectures and tours that run through Oct. 3, including a session at the University of South Florida, which has its own set of Burgert Brothers photos.

A walking tour set for Sept. 29 already sold out, but Harris says more will be scheduled. Learn more at the library's special web page.

So what's my favorite? Well, I see a bit of myself in the African-American men, festooned with fedoras and suspenders, in a 1942 photo of Water Sanderson's Beer Garden on once thriving Central Avenue.

I think we all see a bit of ourselves in the Burgert Brothers photos.

That's all I'm saying.

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