Minding the masters

FmoPA's show highlights the collections of area patrons.

click to enlarge MASKED AND ANONYMOUS: Diane Arbus' "Lady at Masked Ball with Roses on her Dress." - Collection Of David R. Hall Iii
Collection Of David R. Hall Iii
MASKED AND ANONYMOUS: Diane Arbus' "Lady at Masked Ball with Roses on her Dress."

In 2001, Tampa attorney Chuck Levin was on vacation in California when the urge struck again.

The photograph — a famous portrait of a scowling Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh — carried a hefty price tag, but that didn't stop Levin from trying to convince his partner, Cynthia Flowers, that he should buy it. Bargaining and false promises ensued — I promise it's the last photograph I'll ever buy — until Flowers served up a rejoinder that abruptly brought the debate to a close.

You ought to start a photography museum, she suggested; share the wealth instead of just buying photographs to appreciate alone — and get others to do the same. As Levin recalls, the idea stopped him in his tracks.

"I don't think I said another word to her on the way back because that was all I could think about," he says.

When the couple returned home (sans the Churchill portrait), they co-founded the Tampa Gallery of Photographic Arts with the help of Vincent Sorrentino. The longtime New York art dealer, curator and print publisher— a former neighbor of Levin's who lives in Temple Terrace— offered his expertise and contacts with photographers. After opening a small Hyde Park space that year, they grew the endeavor until 2006, when the gallery moved downtown and adopted the loftier moniker Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.

FMoPA's current show, Masters of Black and White, serves as a delightful illustration of the co-founders' dream of creating an educational resource for the Bay area supported by the collections and contributions of local patrons. The exhibit's sampling of 20th-century images by iconic American photographers draws on the collections of museum board members and others. They include Dr. Robert Drapkin, a Clearwater oncologist whose collection — some 5,000 objects strong — may be one of the largest private photographic collections in the Southeast. The exhibit's 39 black-and-white pictures showcase many of straight photography's best-known practitioners, with a wonderful balance of male and female photographers. As an essay that accompanies the exhibit warns, Masters doesn't include every single significant photographer — but it includes enough to satisfy.

The show's highlights include a trio of images by Berenice Abbott published by Sorrentino in 1981 before the photographer's death (and owned by Levin). In 1920s Paris, Abbott apprenticed with surrealist Man Ray and befriended Eugene Atget before returning to America, famously championing Atget's work after his death and ultimately helping to secure his legacy. The eye Abbott inherited from her mentors for the odd comedy of the mundane emerges in "American Shops" (1954), which immortalizes the giddy commercialism of a postwar retail outlet populated with eerily smiling, immaculately dressed mannequins. A separate, vintage Abbot print from the collection of FMoPA board chairman Roger Robson captures a glittering thicket of Manhattan skyscrapers at night, impenetrably dense even in 1934.

Photographs by Andreas Feininger, Ted Croner and Aaron Siskind also pay loving attention to urban landscapes, but spaces outside the city aren't ignored. As a counterpoint to Siskind's rhythmic composition of brownstone windows in "Chicago Façade 4" (courtesy the Drapkin Collection), the exhibition presents the photographer's "Martha's Vineyard," a texture-rich abstract view of coastal rocks (from the collection of Sally Lyman).

Paul Caponigro's compositions of sand incised by capillary-like rivulets of water and a tide pool filled with rocks (both contributions from Lyman) likewise suggest the influence of abstract expressionist painting and biomorphic abstraction on photography of the 1950s and '60s.

The female figure appears in a variety of forms, courtesy the collection of Tampa resident David Hall, another board member whose generosity and connections have benefited FMoPA. In the mid-'90s, Hall retired from his family's car and truck dealership and moved temporarily to California to pursue his dream of studying photography with contemporary masters that included Judy Dater, whose portrait of photography icon Minor White graces the show. (White, in turn, taught Dater; the portrait is part of Hall's collection.) Treatments of the female figure by Ruth Bernhard, Edward Weston, Ralph Gibson, Annie Leibovitz and Harry Callahan — all collected by Hall — provide no shortage of enjoyment.

The museum's next exhibition will continue the tradition of showcasing local collections with photographs taken by Len Prince of Jessie Mann (daughter of photographer Sally Mann) in a parade of disguises from the collection of William Knight Zewadski, a Tampa lawyer.

"There are so many fine things in local collections that haven't seen the light of day," says FMoPA director Joanne Milani. "We've just scratched the surface on this."

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