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  1. Visual Arts

Review: Stunning, comprehensive photography survey at Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

Museum visitors view the exhibit “Five Decades of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts Featuring the Dandrew-Drapkin Collection,” which continues through Oct. 4.
Museum visitors view the exhibit “Five Decades of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts Featuring the Dandrew-Drapkin Collection,” which continues through Oct. 4.
Published Dec. 15, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG

The title is long: "Five Decades of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts Featuring the Dandrew-Drapkin Collection." So is the exhibition. Monumental in its aspirations, "Five Decades of Photography" delivers the goods through a comprehensive study of the medium in all its forms through almost 300 images, many of them famous examples by famous practitioners. • I don't get emotional about art exhibitions; I'm paid to be analytical. I was moved by this one, not because of its scope but because it was put together entirely from the museum's permanent collection. Not a single loan and no need for one. That is such a rarity.

Start at the front

To begin, you might want to focus on the small front gallery, which acts as an all-time greatest hits section. Among them are Alfred Stieglitz's seminal 1907 photogravure, Steerage, in which the image documents a socially relevant issue, immigration, but makes an aesthetic statement in its composition. The picture plane is divided into multiple fields by the ship's elements — stairs, pipes, railings — that are reiterated in the throng of people: a round straw hat and the "x" of white suspenders on a dark shirt. It made the irrefutable argument that photography was an art form as valid as painting and sculpture (Pablo Picasso loved it), a cause Stieglitz had been championing for years, along with talented friends such as Edward Steichen, whose work is also, of course, in the show.

Because the front gallery is a snapshot of the entire exhibition, it works through the early years of photography into the 20th century with the great diversity of individual expression. We see, for example, the technically brilliant tonality of an Ansel Adams landscape; Philippe Halsman's surreal evocation of Salvador Dalí's surreal zaniness in the image of leaping cats, spilling water and a bemused artist; Burk Uzzle's blanket-wrapped Woodstock couple that became the defining image of the event; a moody portrait of Miles Davis by Herb Snitzer that has become the only one that comes to mind when we think of that jazz musician; an image from Winston Link's series documenting America's last steam engines in which a train whizzes past a drive-in movie theater whose screen projects an airplane.

The remaining galleries dig deeper and more thoroughly and, again, you may focus on one above others depending on your interest.

One explores the invention and infancy of photography in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Louis-Jaques-Mande Daguerre was the first, in 1839, to announce the development of a process, though William Henry Fox Talbot in Great Britain stakes an earlier, unofficial claim. The daguerreotype ruled for the next 20 years, and a case in the gallery presents several dozen examples of its popularity, mostly for small portraits kept in leather envelopes. Its popularity waned because it was a single image on glass, fragile and one of a kind. Once methods such as the albumen print for creating a negative that could make multiples became practical, the daguerreotype's days were numbered even though the quality of the image was far superior.

Most of these early photographic images were portraits, historical documentation (of the Civil War, for example), a few oddities (a cross-eyed little boy) and exotic locales to excite potential travelers or provide mementos. George Barker's Niagara Falls (c. 1880), Antonio Beaton's Temple of Ramses II (1870) and Samuel Bourne's Pearl Mosque in India (1865) look as good today as when they were created. Even in its youngest years, many photographers saw the medium as a fine art and, even if they didn't think much about it while they were trying to earn a living, we see a desire to do more than straightforward representation.

One of the most prominent practitioners was Julia Margaret Cameron. We see her theatricality and soft-lens approach, known as Pictorialism, in a portrait of a Madonna-like woman with a beautiful child.

Stieglitz and Steichen have already been noted as vocal advocates for higher respect for the medium. They formalized their intentions with a like-minded group called the Photo-Secessionists, which rebelled against photographers such as Cameron, who replicated traditional art forms in her works — in her case Victorian paintings — and believed the medium could stand alone with its own unique virtues.

21st century art form

A third gallery brings us into the mid 20th century at a time when photography didn't have to prove itself as vigorously. It became far and away the choice for documentation and generated a new type of photographer, the photojournalist as storyteller. Aaron Siskind and Robert Frank are among the most eminent. Examples from the former's Harlem Document (1932-40) and the latter's The Americans portfolio (published 1958) include Frank's St. Petersburg, Florida (1956) with, of course, people sitting on green benches. This is no pro forma, cliched shot. Look at the individuality of each face, caught in uncomposed moments that invite our curiosity and interest.

Along those same lines were some West Coast photographers who formed Group f/64. Among them were Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, who were not photojournalists but believed that a photograph should consist of the reality as seen through the lens (and the name refers to an aperture setting) rather than manipulating it as the Pictorialists did. Other stars represented from this golden time of predigital photography include Margaret Bourke-White, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith, Lewis Hine, Weegee, Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott ... I could go on.

The final gallery brings us to our time, the late 20th and early 21st centuries, when the line between craft and art blurred and in many instances disappeared. Color photographs gained greater prominence as better methods were discovered to stabilize them. You will see an example of the chronic problem of fading in a 1975 Stephen Shore print that has a velvet flap you must lift to view it. Typically, we see those flaps only on older images.

Staged and studio photography became a richly mined process represented by Robert Mapplethorpe's take on body-builder Lisa Lyon's torso and The Sun King, one of William Wegman's many portraits of his soulful Weimaraners. Once reviled printing methods are now instruments of creative experimentation. Carrie Mae Weems' homage to Zora Neale Hurston was made with an inkjet printer, and Ellen Land-Weber created a lovely still life on Japanese tissue paper using a color copier.

Genesis of a collection

You don't need this footnote from me about the museum's photography collection to enjoy the exhibition, but knowing about it will explain the extraordinary circumstances that made it possible. In the 1960s and well into the 1970s, most museums spurned the medium.

Alan DuBois was the assistant director at the museum beginning in 1966, not long after it opened. He had recently earned his MFA in photography, studying under the renowned professor Henry Holmes Smith at Indiana University, one of the few schools that offered such study and believed in photography's value and potential as art.

With the blessing of the museum's founder, Margaret Acheson Stuart, who was an amateur photographer, DuBois quietly began a collection using funds from government arts grants, understanding it would be a hard sell for conservative donors. He also contacted renowned photographers for their support. A wall board in the first gallery reproduces examples of their correspondence. Ansel Adams responded with a gift of several choice prints. Yousuf Karsh gushed with admiration. Carol Upham played a vital part in building the collection. She owned one of the first galleries in Florida devoted to photography (which is where I met her) and later became a museum trustee and board chairwoman. Over the years she has contributed funds and works from her collection.

In 1972, the collection numbered 60 works. Today, it has about 17,000, making it the finest in the southeastern United States. That explosive growth can be attributed to many individuals but mostly to the generosity of two couples, Dr. Robert and Chitranee Drapkin and Bruce and Ludmila Dandrew. The Drapkins also were early collectors of photography and amassed thousands of works, giving many to institutions through the years. Their good friends the Dandrews wanted to honor them and ensure that the remaining collection would remain intact, so they purchased it and gave it to the museum, catapulting it into national prominence in photography circles. It's so vast, it will take several years to catalog all of it.

I say: How fortunate we are to live in a community with people who saw an opportunity for greatness when few others anywhere else did and seized it. That may read as hyperbole but it isn't. These were pioneers. Every wall label in the show documents how each image entered the collection. The majority are gifts, not purchases. I silently thanked each donor as I walked through. It's a humbling lesson in how a museum thrives and a great show is born.

"Five Decades of Photography" is the final one at the museum organized by chief curator Jennifer Hardin before her recent resignation. She culled a daunting inventory down to a distilled history of the medium that has no false note. It's proof that photography today is a respected and coveted medium for museums throughout the world and that our St. Petersburg museum stands with them as peers.

Contact Lennie Bennett at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293. Follow @lennietbt.

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