ST. PETERSBURG — There’s a hard juxtaposition in two new exhibits that reside next to each other in the Hough Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
“Copper, Silver, Salt, Ink: The Chemistry of Photography’s Enduring Desires” resides in history, as an overview of the invention of photography and the early chemical processes that were used in an effort to make images last. The titular metals perfectly describe the look of the exhibition — the galleries are awash in the sepia and black-and-white tones of the photographs.
By contrast, “Derrick Adams: Buoyant” is a celebration of fluorescent hot, bright, vibrant color. And it could be posited that with his bodies of work, Adams, a Baltimore-born Black artist, is making history. Made up entirely of works from the artist’s Floater series, the exhibit offers images of Black people lounging in pool floats on ice blue water. It may not seem shocking, but try finding artworks that explore Black leisure in the canon of art history.
The museum reopened to the public on Sept. 19 with health and safety protocols including timed ticketing and mask requirements. The galleries that house the permanent collection are undergoing a renovation and are closed to the public. They will open later this month.
“Buoyant” greets you first upon entering the Hough Wing. It was organized by the Hudson River Museum in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg and curated by James E. Bartlett founder of Open Art and former Executive Director of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts and Laura Vookles, chair of the Hudson River Museum’s Curatorial Department. It starts out sort of quietly, in a corridor that features a 1967 Ebony magazine article that inspired Adams to create the series. It follows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife as they vacation in Jamaica. King was there working on his fourth and final book, but he took time to relax in the pool.
It’s a side of King that is rarely seen. One tends to think of him as living in his suit and tie, but here he is, shirtless, looking completely relaxed, despite having the weight of the world on his shoulders.
This is precisely the point Adams is making with the Floater series: Regardless of the long history of struggle that Black people have gone through, no person could ever only dwell in that space. Yet there are so few images of Black people simply relaxing with family and friends that he calls the images moments of “radical joy."
A quote from Adams on the wall in the corridor reads: “In a sense, my whole practice came about because I started really thinking about what we do in our leisure time. Even political activists such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King — there are archival images of them on vacation. But people don’t know that there are pictures of MLK in a pool. Those photographs don’t exist as prominent images on Google as much as images of him being imprisoned or protesting. You can’t be in that state of existence 24/7 and be healthy.”
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Stepping from the corridor into the cavernous exhibition space feels like entering a sun-drenched backyard pool area in the middle of summer. Adams' color-blocked figures are kicked back and relaxed in their unicorn-, doughnut- and pizza-shaped floaties. They are chilling hard. They sport swimsuits made from collaged African fabrics and have touches like neon-painted toenails and thick gold chain necklaces.
Two of the pieces in the series are from the collections of Black celebrities. Singer Alicia Keys and her husband Swizz Beatz own a quadriptych, the largest piece in the exhibition. Former Orlando Magic basketball player Grant Hill owns a piece, too.
In the center of the gallery, novelty floats like those in Adams' paintings hang from the ceiling. One of them, the black unicorn with a gold horn, was designed by Adams and is signed by him. They hang over Adirondack chairs, where viewers are invited to sit, take selfies or just relax and absentmindedly let the troubles of the world wash away — just as the figures in “Buoyant” are doing.
The word buoyant has two definitions: able or apt to stay afloat or rise to the top of a liquid or gas; or cheerful and optimistic. It’s an apt title for depictions of people who are able to be optimistic on their rise to the top.
A feeling of stillness washes over you when entering “Copper, Silver, Salt, Ink: The Chemistry of Photography’s Enduring Desires.” Drawn from the museum’s permanent collection and loans from the collection of Robert and Chitranee Drapkin, the exhibition introduces the early pioneers of photography and the chemical processes they employed in an effort to create lasting images of landscapes and people.
In 1842, Henry William Fox Talbot developed the calotype, using a silver-coated paper negative and a salted paper print. Calotypes could be reproduced, but the image faded over time. Talbot spent the rest of his life trying to come up with a reproduction process that wouldn’t fade, eventually resulting in photogravure, a copper and ink process. That became the favored process for printing images in books.
A few years before Talbot invented the calotype, Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre invented the daguerreotype, a silver-coated copper plate process that resulted in a detailed image that could not be reproduced. Before daguerreotypes, the only images people had of each other were paintings, so this new phenomenon became all the rage in Paris. A collection of daguerreotype portraits, cased in little folding frames, are on display. They have a nearly holographic tendency.
The exhibition moves through history and features the Pictoralist Movement, when photographers led by Alfred Stieglitz used photogravure to create works of fine art.
By showcasing contemporary works, the exhibition reveals how some of these early processes endure, especially photogravure, which is still employed at Graphicstudio, the printmaking atelier at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
USF professor of photography Wendy Babcock’s Gethsemane 4 was created by photogravure on handmade paper. Babcock photographed all 23 of the ancient olive trees in Jerusalem’s Garden of Gethsemane. In each image, she removed the entire background, allowing each tree to stand in an empty space. These works hearken back to the 19th century photographs of Jerusalem by Auguste Salzmann.
While the two exhibitions could not differ more, they are a reminder of the museum’s status as an encyclopedic institution that can simultaneously showcase the past and the future of art.
If you go
“Derrick Adams: Buoyant” and “Copper, Silver, Salt, Ink: The Chemistry of Photography’s Enduring Desires” are on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg through Nov. 29. A panel discussion with Adams happens on Oct. 15 via Zoom. Tickets can be purchased on the museum’s website for $10 and include a voucher for museum admission. Museum admission is $10-$12. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are timed and can be purchased in advance online. 255 Beach Drive NE. (727) 896-2667. mfastpete.org.