“Photographing the City" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg is a timely exhibition even though it begins in the 19th century and ends well before the 21st century. Big-name, obscure and anonymous photographers tell a compelling story of the medium's importance in recording city life, in a sense coming of age as modern cities did. We see the effects, positive and negative, of dense populations.
The show is divided into four sections: transportation, commerce, disaster and community. One of the earliest works is from the 1870s of Pompeii, which was abandoned and forgotten after a cataclysmic earthquake covered the city in volcanic ash in 79 A.D. After excavations beginning in the 1740s, it became a popular tourist destination and the photograph in this group would have been a memento. Those taken of San Francisco in 1906 after a major earthquake and resulting fires destroyed more than 80 percent of the city resemble more recent ones shot after Hurricane Sandy blew through cities along the East Coast, reminding us that cities don't stand a chance when nature takes a major stand.
Yet, as we also see, the city has been an incubator for the best human aspirations. Stereoscopes of New York's growing rail system in 1877 and Berenice Abbott's dramatic 1936 shot of the elevated train tracks on Second and Third avenues are proofs of positive urban development. As are before and after photographs of a Panama City, Panama, street being transformed from a dirt road to new pavement.
Cities exist because of people, and those living in them find ways to mitigate the inherent depersonalizing elements. Two men play chess in Greenwich Village in a 1950 photograph by Weegee. Walter Rosenblum found people converting a street to a playground in Harlem in 1952. Gary Winogrand photographed a pretty woman meeting her boyfriend among a crowd on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum in 1970.
Many of the photographs are reportage but a number of them rise to the level of art. Abbott's take on the New York Stock Exchange, for example, shows the surrounding buildings in deep shadow, with only the Exchange's stately columns bathed in the fleeting rays of sun sneaking through the high-rises. O. Winston Link made 1950s documentations of the last of America's steam engines into a creative project. He caught one in 1956 as it sped past couples at a drive-in movie in a small West Virginia town. And another extraordinary photograph by Abbott is a nighttime aerial view of New York City twinkling with lights.
This is a small exhibition in the second-floor gallery reserved for works on paper, but it's rich in historic images with good wall text accompanying the photographs. Evolution and progress are at its heart but we also see that some things don't change. One personal favorite example is a photograph of Daytona Beach taken in 1915. Substitute SUVs and sports cars for the Model Ts driving on its wide beach and it could be today.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.