At first glance, Gary Monroe's E. G. Barnhill: Florida Photographer, Adventurer, Entrepreneur appears a delightful coffee table book. The glossy pages reveal spread after spread of what appear to be watercolors of St. Petersburg flora and fauna — and beyond.
At second glance, however, the book reveals more. The color plates don't capture paintings, exactly: the book contains reprints of photographs with vivid colors applied through a now-all-but-forgotten process of uranium painting. E.G. Barnhill took photographs (mostly in south Pinellas but elsewhere in Florida, too) and painted them to look like paintings, selling them to tourists as souvenirs.
Monroe details the laborious process and struggles Barnhill went through to build this cottage tourist industry, and while the book has less than 30 pages of text, Monroe packs them with insight into Barnhill's creative life. Monroe also allows readers to glimpse a vignette of what St. Petersburg tourism looked like in Barnhill's day.
The beauty of the natural environment — and Monroe takes great pains to explain how Barnhill manipulated that environment, pre-PhotoShop — aside, the art of this story lies with Barnhill and how he made a living off tourists with his picture postcards.
Today, the amount of work Barnhill put into his trinket keepsakes seems ridiculously laborious — we live in an Instagram world, where creating postcard-like pictures with vividly surreal colors comes as easy as tapping a few filters on your iPhone, not going back to a studio and breaking out the uranium. But Barnhill lived in a different Florida, different because technology hadn't made the true colors of Florida readily available to the gray-toned wintry north. He used that knowledge gap to paint memories for each tourist, allowing them to take home a Florida experience color-stained with their memories. If the postcard colors ran deeper or more vibrant than the reality, well, what did it matter, if it fell in line with the holder's recollections?
Barnhill's Florida differed, too, because tourism looked different, in part because the natural environment trumped the built one and Florida didn't have gift shops on every corner. Surf Styles, Alvin's Islands and Wings didn't dot the beach; tokens of paradise didn't come emblazoned on t-shirts and made-in-China coffee cups. So, while a Barnhill postcard symbolized something special, it also offered something rare, a sui generis reminder of a slice of paradise.
And, in turn, Monroe has preserved the process and reality of making these memories, which, in turn, makes his book a treasure indeed.