Florida Museum of Photographic Arts takes it back to the 50s and 60s

Two photography displays in Tampa display the ups and downs of America in the 1950s and 60s.
Published November 29 2018

TAMPA — A pair of exhibitions at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts will take you on two exhilarating trips back in time. “Day by Day: 1968” takes you to a period of radical upheaval. By contrast, “Berenice Abbott: North and South, Route One” is a visit to the America’s East Coast in 1954 during an era of relative innocence.

1968. That was the “year that was” — at least for those old enough to remember it. Suddenly, what went before was not the same as what came after. Just ask anyone who lived through it. The exhibition is spellbinding for anyone who remembers that year of love 50 years ago with its anti-war demonstrations, the burning of draft cards and the rise — literally — of the miniskirt.

Assembled by a private collector, this show consists of 366 vintage black and white news photos from newspapers and popular media. There is an original press image for every day of that landmark year, so you get to witness events large and small.

For some of us, we get to live it yet again.

It is still shocking to see Bobby Kennedy dying on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. However, the Poor People’s march on Washington is uplifting, as well as the view of multiple demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Catch the energy of a young Jimi Hendrix. Feel the heat from the steamy romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Witness a pot-induced cloud hovering over an anti-draft demonstration in San Francisco. The event is really a love-in with the laid-back crowd waiting for Muhammad Ali to speak.

Of course, the Beatles were at the center of everything. See John Lennon and Yoko Ono as they were arrested in London for possession of marijuana. Watch Johnny Cash and June Carter get married in Franklin, Ky., on March 1. On April 11, seven days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., witness President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

There are small moments revealing a human touch, as when a Soviet Army officer climbs down from his tank to listen to people in the street in Prague. Captain Kangaroo mugs for his young fans. A little girl demonstrates a Hula Hoop. Richard Nixon shows a typical American kitchen to Nikita Khrushchev at a trade fair in Moscow.

This exhibition is a time machine with a punch. As dated as all these events seem, they carry huge emotional weight for anyone who has lived through them. But while there is no escaping the past, there is also no escaping the future portended in two closing shots. One is a photo of a giant Saturn rocket that will carry three astronauts to the moon. The other is a photo of Douglas Engelbart of Stanford University. He is demonstrating the first computer mouse.

“Berenice Abbott: North and South, Route One” also is a trip through time, although this voyage is a very different one. Born in 1898, Abbott was a rebel ahead of her time: “The day after I graduated from high school in Cleveland, Ohio, I had the barber cut off the long, thick braid which hung down my back … and with its departure came a great sense of relief. I felt lighter and freer.”

Abbott went off to Ohio State University where “my bobbed hair startled the campus.” Soon after that, she took off for New York and its artistic community. By 1921, she was on to Paris and its international community of artists, yearning to get away from the commercialism and provincialism of America.

Sometimes it takes an ex-pat to look back at the home folks and learn to love them more intensely than anyone who has never left. So it was with Abbott. After making a name for herself in Parisian artistic circles, she returned to New York in 1930 to create her famous photographs of that city. Through her lens, urban architecture became poetry.

“To put it mildly,” she once wrote, “I have and have had a fantastic passion for New York, photographically speaking.”

By the time she was 56 and well established in artistic circles, she decided it was time to grab her camera and return to rural America. In 1954, she headed south from New York, going down U.S. Route 1 to Key West, wanting “to capture visually the character of an historic section of the U.S. before the bull dozers and derricks moved in.”

Unerringly, she captured the strong, unassuming character of the American countryside. Notice the crisp, white lines of a courthouse in Petersburg, Va. A proud, strong tobacco farmer, Mrs. A.J. Taylor of Leesville, S.C., stands in front of her frame house wearing her checkered apron.

You will see here the white stone steps of Baltimore row houses, an open air fruit market under a giant shade tree along the South Dixie Highway in Miami and weather-beaten potato farmers in Aroostook, Maine.

“Photography can only represent the present,” she once said. “Once photographed, the subject becomes part of the past.”