Odds are, the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts is not on your bucket list, and while I don’t know precisely how far up you might bump it (you really must go skydiving or bungee jumping), it should certainly be on your Tampa bucket list. And it should be for all sorts of reasons. From the downtown tourist hub near the arena and the convention center, it’s an easy stroll along the riverwalk to get there, and you’ll be rewarded with striking shows within a remarkable mid-80s building.
FMoPA is housed on two floors of an architectural gem. The Cube, surely a Tampa landmark, sits next to the unmistakable “beer can building,” another impressive structure whose name does not do it justice. Both are limestone structures, but the Cube is dominated by a bright, open atrium that climbs at least six stories and is flanked by open glass panels in a grid and circle. The FMoPA has installed outward facing images on some of the panels, inviting visitors to the space.
That the museum doesn’t occupy the entirety of the building is a bit disappointing, but the current exhibit Ezra Stoller: Photographing Modernism made me completely forget the limitations. The vintage photography of striking mid-century architecture resonated so well with the space that I found myself as much absorbed in the power of light and space to influence images as I was with the craft of photography itself. The mid-century obsession with line and light finds perfect expression in the Cube, and seeing Stoller’s work in this setting only highlights the impressive quality of both the photographer and the power of built environments. It was a stroke of genius to hang the work here.
While FMoPA also has a cultural history exhibit on view—Tim Duffy’s journalistic portraits of forgotten music icons who linger on the edges of culture—the show on the third floor demands attention because it illustrates the variety in today’s world of photography. There, Elger Esser’s series Combray invites you into another world. Whereas Stoller’s photographs function as a kind of meta-exhibit on the relationship between the photographs on view and the space for viewing, Combray transports you to another country and another time. The images are of a magical, even if at times ruined, landscape. White horses wander hidden glens, and sunlight breaks across the threshold of collapsing doors and windows. The images are muted, almost as though dusted with age or the chalk of the limestone buildings in the images. Large-scale, they fill walls, and when viewed from across the Cube’s atrium they appear to be a portal to a summer abroad, wandering back roads. I yearned to be there. That the work is printed on handmade paper and that it is a heliogravure suggests something about the care of the printing and the quality of timelessness to them. Surely, in titling the work Combray, Esser has something in mind with time and timelessness, and if that fantasy city materializes before us in the way that Esser wants us to believe it can, it would be all but impossible to resist its call to end our years there. Visiting from New York at the end of a long winter, I had a longing to escape to it that was almost unbearable. Mercifully, Tampa’s warm spring evening provided some relief, even if I couldn’t wander with the white horses.
Combray and Photographing Modernism is on view at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts in Tampa, Florida through March 29 and April 26 respectively.
Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don’t Take Pictures. His critical writings have appeared in exhibition catalogues and he has written extensively on self-taught artists with features in Raw Vision and The Outsider. He currently resides in Long Island, New York and is a Professor at Stony Brook University.