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The Burgerts: photographers with a heart

Ran in S edition

What a scoop! What a scheme! Al Burgert struck gold.

It was another season, another hurricane. And Burgert, a photographer by trade, owned some of the few, rare pictures of the devastation.

The shots were vivid: a splintered bungalow, a smashed wharf, and the schooner Thomas B. Garland tossed over like a toy. The whole scene looked like an angry child had smashed his building-block city with a single swipe.

It was October 1921. Burgert gathered the photographs to send to the Associated Press in New York City. His coup would bring quite a price.

But Al Burgert stopped and hesitated.

For two decades his family had been taking pictures of Tampa Bay, not the gory stuff, the pictures that sold newspapers, but pictures of Florida beauty to lure thousands to the state.

Burgert stared again at the smashed scenes of the state he loved.

He put them in a drawer, where they would remain for almost 60 years.

A photographer by trade, but a promoter foremost: It's the story of the Burgert Brothers of Tampa.

Chances are you've seen their photos. If you've been to the Tampa Public Library, you have. Or the Ybor City Museum. Or maybe in a book about Tampa.

They are pictures of an earlier era, when Tampa was young and the state was booming. In the corner of each photo was a simple signature: "Burgert Brothers, Tampa."

There are pictures of cigar makers and Gasparilla kings. Tea Dances at the old Tampa Bay Hotel and Ku Klux Klan meetings by the river. Good Humor Trucks and Tampa trolleys.

Look at Davis Islands before it was an island _ just a landfill. Look at the new Gandy Bridge, the first link between Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The Bayshore is as grand as ever, but the cars are Model-A Fords, not Mercedes.

Now, for the first time, the Burgerts' work has been collected in a book chronicling not Tampa Bay, but the family who spent years behind the camera. The book, called Pioneer Commercial Photography, The Burgert Brothers of Tampa, was written by two professors at the University of South Florida.

"They had a great sense of history," said Robert F. Snyder, professor of American Studies at USF and one of the authors of the book. "They had such a keen eye."

Pictures of car wrecks, businesses and weddings paid the bills, but the family also took pictures of everyday life.

"You could call them photographers with a heart," said Jack B. Moore, chairman of the USF American Studies program and the other author. "They took such a delight in this community. It wasn't just a job."

Snyder said the Burgert collection is notable because it illustrates the diversity of life in Tampa Bay. While there are many pictures of white society, the Burgerts also chronicled Ybor City and the segregated South. Never activists, the brothers did capture injustice of the period: "Negro chain gangs," black workers shucking oysters in Apalachicola, and women working under harsh conditions at Plant City canning factories.

"When you go through this collection, it's really a great cross-section of what was going on," Snyder said. "It spans the whole spectrum: leisure, work, development, gender and race. I think they just stood around and captured moments."

Six men and a camera

The first store was a humble one: 1310{ Seventh Ave. in Ybor City.

The year was 1899, and Samuel Burgert thought he could make a living taking pictures, a relatively daring business for the turn of the century. Concentrating only on portraits, S. P. Burgert & Son would spawn the entire Burgert Brothers business.

By the 1920s, brothers Al and Jean Burgert ran the business, expanding it to a vast array of commercial projects.

Alfred Paul Burgert was always the driving force behind the business, said Rose Burgert Baker, the only surviving member of the family.

"He was full of life and more outgoing than Uncle Jean," says Mrs. Baker, graddaughter of Samuel Burgert. While Jean plotted business strategy, Al Burgert hunted down customers.

In the field, they often worked as a team.

"They used to go out in these awful hurricanes," Mrs. Baker said. "And they would stand there. Uncle Jean would hold the tripod and Uncle Al would take the pictures."

But she said Uncle Al never sold those pictures, even though they were valuable.

"Uncle Al never sent those pictures," said Mrs. Baker. "It would look bad for Florida. That's the way he was."

All photos taken from Pioneer Commercial Photography by Robert E. Snyder and Jack B. Moore.