Tour Boat on River, W.L.Coursen
|“Panoramic photography arrived just in time to capture the late nineteenth century American discovery of Florida as a tourist destination.” –Jay Mechling|
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION
What panoramic photographs add to the record of the natural environment and of the social and cultural history of Florida is a magic that is both aesthetic and psychological. EDGE TO EDGE comprises more than 200 vintage panoramic photographs and original vintage postcards that draw out the fascinating history of this unique style of photography from Florida’s “golden years” in the early twentieth century. Collected from a number of major public collections and private holdings, these images provide us with an image of the natural environment and of the social and cultural history of a now long-vanished “sunshine state.”
Many of the works presented in this exhibition and catalogue are drawn directly from the collection of artifacts gathered over the years by Jay Mechling, the exhibition’s curator. With works ranging from the so-called “Real Photo Postcards,” which were produced by many notable photographers of the time, to original and full-sized panoramic prints, some up to a “yard long;” the Mechling Collection is one of the largest and most complete archives of this type of photography of Florida in existence.
The appearance of the Kodak Panoram in 1889 coincided with one of the early land booms in Florida, and by the more famous 1920s land boom and bust commercial panoramic photography was well-established. The tourists coming to Florida during the first three decades of the twentieth century — first by train and then by automobile — created an affluent market for commercial photography. The Florida landscape itself was an exotic site to be experienced and saved in souvenir views. After all, the Everglades was advertised to tourists as “America’s last frontier,” a significant claim in light of the 1890 Census’s conclusion that there was no longer a Western frontier in the U.S. Florida was still plenty wild and new in the 1910s and 1920s, and the lush pine and hardwood forests, pierced by picturesque rivers and streams, provided beautiful scenery quite unlike that found in the American Northeast, plains, or Far West.
“Just as the Hudson River School painters commonly used the lightning-blasted tree stump as a symbol of nature’s destructive power in the midst of pastoral beauty, so the Florida photographers commonly used this image of the oak or palm tree leaning over a river.” –Jay Mechling
Oak Hanging Over River, W.H. Gardiner
PANORAMIC PHOTOGRAPHS AS ART
Some of the commercial photographers who found Florida such a profitable place to set up business early in the twentieth century aimed to create photographs that could be appreciated as art as much as souvenirs of a Florida visit.
Florida’s photographers were familiar with the nineteenth-century traditions of American landscape and riverscape painting, especially the romantic visions of the Hudson River School of painters. As Ruth K. Beesch notes in her essay introducing the catalog for a 1989 exhibition of Florida landscape painting between 1870 and 1930, the painters of Florida developed their own set of visual conventions and symbols, expressions reminiscent of the established nineteenth century landscape styles yet also particular to the special landscapes that Florida offered. The painters of Florida landscapes, explains Beesch, were portraying nothing less than a mythical Eden, a tropical arcadia of exotic animals, such as the alligator, and a lush jungle floor and canopy. Tourists need not visit Africa or South America. This jungle Eden was nearby.
The beaches of Florida offered their own possibilities for awe, wonder, and the experience of sublime beauty. It is at the beach that the panoramic photographers in Florida found a subject worthy of the format. While Florida boosters in the early twentieth century marketed orange groves, tropical riverscapes, and the “last frontier” of the Everglades to draw tourists and customers for land sales, the main attraction of Florida for winter visitors was the mild weather and Atlantic Ocean bathing beaches. The paradox of comfortable wintertime bathing in the ocean, a common visual theme in Florida commercial photography even today, began in this period.
Three of the most prolific Daytona panoramic photographers: W.L. Coursen, R.H. LeSesne, and Grenell, documented the famous cars and drivers such as Sir Malcom Campbell and his speed records in the "Bluebird" and Ralph DePalma in his Packard Racer. A series of panoramic postcards by Coursen recorded the ocean crash of Frank Lockhart’s Stutz, named Black Hawk, including Lockhart’s rescue from the water. The panoramic format suited well these long, sleek cars seeking land speed records, but Coursen’s attention to the crash reminds us that panoramic photographers also recorded disasters — from natural disasters to fires and dramatic car wrecks.
ABOUT THE CURATOR
Jay Mechling is Professor Emeritus of American Studies at the University of California, Davis. He received his B.A. (1967) in American Studies from Stetson University and his graduate degrees in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania (M.A. 1969, Ph.D. 1971). He writes regularly about Florida tourism and about vernacular photography as historical evidence. He and Elizabeth Walker Mechling (also Stetson Class of 1967 and with graduate degrees from Temple University) guest curated and wrote the catalog for the Southeast Museum of Photography’s exhibition, “Embellishing Eden: Hand-painted Photographs of Florida,” which opened in October of 2001. They live in Alameda, California.
“Florida’s landscapes, riverscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, and human activity were well-suited to the panoramic medium, and one cannot imagine a better medium for capturing so dramatic a scene as the beach at Daytona, the aftermath of a hurricane, or a beach crowded with bathers.” –Jay Mechling
All images are vintage panoramic photographs.
|After the Storm, Miami Bayshore Drive, Anonymous||Beach, Bathers, Cars, Horse, Anonymous|
|Beach, Cars, Flying biplane on right, Anonymous||King of Speed 245 MPH!, Campbell Bluebird II, W.L. Coursen|
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