Downtown intersection of Florida and Franklin streets with Cass Street, looking eastTampa, Florida May 10, 1928. Courtesy HCPLC
The black and white landscapes that populate the Burgert Brothers Photographic Collection are simultaneously familiar and foreign. As the pre-eminent commercial photographers in Tampa during the first half of 20th century, the Burgert Brothers Studio recorded the development of modern Hillsborough County one street corner and storefront at a time. The result is a collection of almost-familiar images ― downtown Tampa bustling with pedestrians, for example ― that are barely recognizable to contemporary viewers.
Comparing and contrasting the old with the new is what makes these photographs so compelling. In the History Center’s latest exhibition, The Big Picture: A Selection of Cirkut Photographs from the Burgert Brothers Collection, we see revelers gathered in suits and ties to enjoy Gasparilla, and swimmers enjoying Sulphur Springs, but few people are able to equate the framed images before them with their own personal experiences. If you didn’t visit downtown Tampa in the 1920s, for example, your mind immediately begins to assemble the modern pieces that are missing from the static black and white image of Franklin and Cass streets in 1928. You almost recognize it, but not quite.
The Burgert Brothers Studio snapped more than 80,000 photographs for its clients between the late 1880s and the 1960s. The photographs appeared in national publications, including Life and National Geographic magazines, as well as local newspapers, advertisements, promotional brochures, and displays for offices and stores. After the studio closed, its photographs and negatives were stored in a South Tampa garage, where heat and humidity destroyed many of the negatives. In 1974, the Friends of the Libraryof Tampa-Hillsborough County, recognizing the significance of the collection, purchased approximately 15,000 of the negatives so that the photographs would be available to the public.
Thanks to the availability of inexpensive reprints, many of the Burgert photographs are nearly ubiquitous. They adorn the walls of cafes and restaurants, doctor’s offices, and law firms across the Tampa Bay area. Many are familiar scenes: Gasparilla, Bayshore Boulevard or Ybor’s 7th Avenue. But this only scratches the surface of the collection.
The Burgert Brothers’ cirkut prints ― perhaps the most striking and least-viewed images in the entire collection ― form the heart of the History Center’s exhibition. Of the thousands of images in the Burgert Brothers Photographic Collection, only 442 are cirkut photographs.
Introduced by Kodak in the early 1900s, cirkut cameras enabled production of panoramic photographs up to 4 feet wide by 1 foot high. These large format rotational panorama cameras are capable of photographing a 360-degree view. The Burgert Brothers Studio was the largest commercial studio in Tampa with this type of camera.
Gathering of Florida African-American Elks Clubs
Tampa, Florida February, 1929. Courtesy HCPLC
Cirkut cameras were originally built for photographing large groups such as conventions, graduating classes, and other public gatherings. Commercial photographers, like Al and Jean Burgert, quickly discovered a demand for panoramic views of landscapes such as railroads or real estate developments, farming and mining properties, manufacturing plants, and waterfronts and business districts of cities.
Two prints from the mid-1920s exemplify the near-familiar feel of the Burgert’s cirkut photographs. It’s startling to contrast the aerial view of Ybor City in 1926 ― hundreds of houses packed tightly together, almost on top of each other ― with the sparseness of today’s Ybor, its remaining wood-framed bungalows siting solitarily among dozens of empty lots. Then, there’s the image from just one year earlier, 1925, of a nascent Davis Islands literally rising from the waters of Hillsborough Bay. Knowing what would become of these two neighborhoods over the next 80 years is what makes viewing these images so engrossing − and so fun.
Elevated view of Ybor City with homes in area known as the “Scrub Section” on the left Tampa, Florida, May 11, 1926. Courtesy HCPLC
The exhibition also includes a slideshow of 80 “re-photographs” by local photographer Bryan Weinstein. A civil engineer by trade with a passion for history and photography, Weinstein was drawn to the Burgert Brothers collection, enamored with the historic architecture depicted throughout the collection, and unsettled by photographs of beautiful buildings that have long since succumbed to the wrecking ball.
Weinstein began revisiting locations where these historic photographs were taken. As a Tampa native, he wanted to see how the area had changed over the years. As a photographer, he wanted to photograph the modern scene. What was initially a quick snapshot soon turned into a methodical reproduction, with the goal of taking identical “re-photographs” of the location, from the same angle that the Burgerts took their original historic photographs. The only difference between the Burgerts’ photographs and Weinstein’s re-photographs is the elapse of nearly 100 years.
Rounding out the collection of 22 cirkut prints and other photographs is one of the Burgert Brothers Studio’s original ledgers, an original glass-plate negative, a 1904 “suitcase” camera of the type the Burgert Brothers used on many of their shoots, and other ephemera from the studio’s history.
The Big Picture: A Selection of Cirkut Photographs from the Burgert Brothers Collection is on exhibit now through July 15 in the History Center’s Touchton Map Gallery.