The receptionist at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, said, "You're going to like it," when I told her I was there to see the photography exhibition.
She was right.
"Pleasure Grounds and Restoring Spaces: Photographs of Our National Parks" is a long title for a small show, but it delivers in a big way. About 30 images have been culled from the permanent collection and cover the mid 19th through the 20th centuries.
A photograph by Clyde Butcher taken in Big Cypress National Preserve bordering the Everglades is stationed at the entrance. It's a surprise because it's a color photograph, one of the few in the show, from 1985 before he became famous for his grandly scaled black-and-white landscapes. One of those from 1996 hangs on a wall in the gallery, so dominant that it even muscles out two nearby works by Ansel Adams.
Butcher's images provide both a particular insight into his evolution and a general lesson in black-and-white nature photography. Limiting the palette to a monochrome when portraying a subject alive with color seems counterintuitive, but it allows the photographer greater latitude in putting artistic intent into the work. When we look at color photographs we usually register them first as representations of reality rather than interpretations of it. Study the two Butchers. They're taken in different parks but present an almost identical arrangement of trees, wild grass and a sky with cumulus clouds scuttling through. Yet the response to the black-and-white work is more emotional; we pause before it longer and study it more closely.
You will probably wonder why you only see his color photograph reproduced on this page. I would have loved putting both side by side, but modern art, especially photography, is often copyrighted and, even if you own a print, you can't use it for anything but viewing without permission from the photographer (or an entity such as a foundation) who owns the copyright. The ones shown here are those that the museum has permission to use. This is a detour paragraph, but the copyright issue applies to so many shows about which I write, I figured it would explain how images are chosen.
In addition to the two larger photographs by Ansel Adams, two smaller ones represent the artist. We have seen them many times before, but they always bear revisiting. The tonalities for which he is so famous are near perfection. He coaxes out the shimmer of a river snaking through a canyon and finds the exact moment when a clearing in the clouds produces the sun's glint on Yosemite's craggy peaks. Adams seems to bend nature to his own will and vision.
The earliest works are more documentary. The western vistas were captured by passionate photographers and naturalists who wanted both to open them up to a larger population and to secure government protection from despoilment of them. President Theodore Roosevelt, on a visit to Yosemite with the great naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir in 1903, posed on Glacier Point, a dramatic overlook that juts from a high rock formation. Its heart-stopping thrust into air is better seen in another print, c. 1870s, by Carleton Watkins, who shot from below as a group of male tourists crowded onto it as if it were a hotel balcony. Watkins was an early advocate for preservation, and his photographs were instrumental in educating the public and government officials of the West's wild beauty.
One of my favorites is by Jerry Uelsmann, master of the composite photograph and best known for his cerebral, surreal juxtapositions. But Flamingos Visit Yosemite (1985) is delightfully hilarious.
Two vitrines hold small early photographic images including an album of hand-colored prints by C.D. Ford. Books in an exhibition are frustrating because they're open only to two pages. Curatorial assistant Sabrina Hughes dispatched that issue by putting all of the images onto a tablet that scrolls as you touch it.
For a small show, this is packed with a variety of perspectives and big names and is an example of the breadth and quality of the museum's photography holdings. The museum, and all of us, owe much gratitude to the many donors who have given art so generously through the decades, but this collection points to several key donors who have played a big role in building the photography collection, especially Carol Upham. She was an early proponent of the medium before it became so critically accepted and gave early and often.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.