TAMPA — In the 1980s, Tampa was the birthplace of two important photography collections. Now you can enjoy both in an exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art. These collections clearly reveal an interesting slice of Tampa’s cultural past.
“Tableau and Transformation” features selections from the museum’s holdings as well as from a pioneering corporate collection, the Trenam Law Collection. The two collections have a similar history.
“They dovetail,” said Julie Saul, the New York gallery owner who was instrumental in developing both collections.
Saul, who comes from a prominent Tampa family, had worked at the Tampa Bay Art Center, the predecessor of Tampa Museum of Art. That was where she mounted a photography exhibition in 1983. She opened her Manhattan gallery a few years later.
“When I started the art gallery, it was a turning point in the history of photography,” she said. “It was the beginning of a postmodern moment. Photography was looking at advertising and media and looking back at society.”
Saul worked with the museum’s chief curator, Genevieve Linnehan, to begin shaping the museum’s collection.
Meanwhile, Sherwin Simmons, a founding partner of the Tampa law firm Trenam, Simmons, Kemker, Scharf, Barkin, Frye and O’Neill, wanted to develop a collection of photography. Simmons, who had studied photography under famed French photographer Lucien Clergue, turned to Saul.
“We were her first corporate client,” said William K. Zewadski, an attorney with Trenam as well as a longtime supporter of the arts. “We now have about 250 works on five floors of our offices in Tampa and St. Petersburg.”
Saul began developing a collection for them. It was a labor of love, not money. Saul remembers the art market changing, making purchasing art more of an adventure than anything else. She cites photographs costing $3,500 back then that are worth $35,000 today, with now-legendary art stars like David Hockney, John Baldessari, Laurie Simmons and Sandy Skoglund leading the pack.
In “Tableau and Transformation,” one-third of the 50 works on view are on loan from the Trenam Law Collection, a mix that makes sense considering the intertwined history of both collections. The last time the museum’s photography went on view was 1993, noted Joanna Robotham, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art.
Don’t expect to find snapshots of family vacations or your mom’s baby pictures here. In the 1980s, photography jumped out of the box as artists used the camera to express ideas, not just to record reality.
When Polaroid developed its giant 20x24 camera and invited artists to use it, photography became a whole new adventure. Robotham uses the term “tableau” to refer to staged photography, such as when William Wegman poses his Weimaraner, Man Ray, in a high chair. Waiting for Dinner, an image nearly 3 feet in height, is not your usual baby picture.
Wegman bought the famous dog for $35, the story goes. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to keep him, and tossed a coin to decide.
Wegman later got an invitation from Polaroid to use its new large-format camera. A star was born as Man Ray (and his successors, Fay Ray and other Weimaraners) gained fame through Wegman’s inspired staging and Polaroid’s new technology.
James Casebere creates his own miniature stage sets from paper and other materials. His black and white photographs of these sets have a haunted quality reminiscent of dreams or nightmares.
“Black and white had more to do with memory and the past,” the artist told BOMB Magazine in 2001. “Color was too much about the present. I associated it with color TV, which was not a part of my past. I wanted the images to be related to a sense of history, let’s say, whether personal or social.”
“Transformation” refers to the artists transforming themselves, said Robotham. No one has transformed herself more than Cindy Sherman. With her razor-sharp wit, she has satirized the conventions of movie star pinups, horror movies and Madison Avenue advertising by posing herself as movie stars, models and monsters.
If the camera is known for telling the truth, Sherman knows how to spin that truth in dizzying ways. Sherman is her own director, makeup artist, wardrobe stylist, model and more. They’re not self-portraits, the artist has said, and sometimes, she disappears.
Photography has come into its own in the history of art. Remember what Ansel Adams once said: “You don’t take a photograph. You make it.”
Contact Joanne Milani at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
“Tableau and Transformation: Photography From the Permanent Collection”
On view through Oct. 20. $15, $7.50 seniors, military and Florida educators, $5 students, free for college students with ID, children 6 and younger and members. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays and Fridays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays with pay-what-you-will admission, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on fourth Fridays. 120 W Gasparilla Plaza. (813) 274-8130. tampamuseum.org.