USF Libraries | Special & Digital Collections | Exhibits

Historical Narrative: The Photographs of Robertson and Fresh and the Burgert Brothers

By: Christopher Adkins

      A photograph is not merely a record of a specific instance, a shot of time that can be seen and then dispensed with – it is a memory of a bygone time captured forever in a solitary image. The changes from one photograph, taken in the past, and put into the present, can be jarring: a photograph in hand to prove that something used to be here, that places, people, ideas, used to exist at all. Often forgotten in the use of photography as a medium in the use of historical archives is how metaphysical the nature of a captured image becomes – and in the history of Florida, which has changed dramatically and unalterably in the last half-century all over the state—photography becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, a meditation on the passage of time itself.

     In Tampa, a city which carried on apace with what Gary Mormino in Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams has called "the Big Bang" of Florida demography, photography is an invaluable tool to show how much has changed – and how much has been lost.1 Here, one can examine the age when jazz music came to Tampa and created a vibrant, shimmering nightlife.

      In the photographic collections of Robertson and Fresh and the Burgert Brothers— commercial photographers operating before, during, and after the Great Depression—one finds recollections – often painfully wistful – of a Tampa gone by. This was the Tampa that met the glorious dawn of jazz music America. It was a breakneck era of development, when many of the most recognizable aspects of Tampa today rapidly appeared: the Courtney Campbell Causeway, the numerous bridges spanning the Hillsborough River, the lofty eighteen-story Floridian Hotel (Fig. 1).2

     Digitized and waiting in the University of South Florida's Special Collections, the faded, vanished glamour of old Tampa nightlife still sparkles, vivacious even through an aching wistfulness, wordlessness. This golden age of jazz music in Tampa coincided with some of Robertson and Fresh’s and the Burgert Brothers' most

     The Burgert Brothers, especially, were noted for their technical skill: as Robert B. Snyder and Jack B. Moore note in their book about the brothers, Pioneer Commercial Photography, the brothers “produced superb commercial photography without pretense or staged artiness.” A fine example of this is their exterior shot of the Cliff Mathis Place in Ybor (Fig. 3). Of course, one can easily say the same for those taken by Robertson and Fresh, competitors of the Burgerts. Yet in both cases there was probably no need for anything “staged” or with “pretense.”3

     One finds in these photographs places such as the High Hat Club (Fig. 4), Sloppy Joe's, Porky's Supper Club 601 Zack Street (today a Verizon Wireless store) that longer exist anymore. We see mostly white people disporting themselves, dancing, eating, and smoking. 
            The attire of the era means that even the most casual dresser looks, to modern eyes, fabulous and well-appointed. There are smiles, laughter, and joy. Even looking at a still image one can feel the energy, smell the cigar music, and hear the trumpets, trombones, drums. One can imagine in the book a few crooked fellows are playing bolita – “a numbers game, much like the lottery today, where a person bough certain numbers that would hopefully be picked by the bolita house.”4

     Yet white people are not the exclusive focus of these photographs. Snyder and Moore also point out that “the studio never had a color line. The Burgerts accepted appointments from everyone.”5 Their apparent determination to be consummate businessman who did not adhere to any contemporary segregated hate would prove invaluable for the historian. Robertson and Fresh, their rival photography outfit in Tampa, also seemed to be refreshingly oblivious to the “color line” of twentieth-century Florida social politics. And so one sees, in both the work of the Burgert Brothers and Robertson and Fresh, not just black, but white and Latino. The admixture of the African-American community with that of the Latino (specifically, Cuban) community is on display in the photographic collections of both the Burgert Brothers and that of Robertson and Fresh: Blacks dance on the patio of Marti Maceo, Ybor City (Fig. 4), which still stands today as a multi-cultural meeting place. African-American Jazz musicians pose with their instruments in two photographs (Figs. 2 and 7). In a third image, taken at the long-defunct Sloppy Joe's, musicians can be seen posing with Latin instruments in a multi-racial crowd (Fig. 6).

      While music generally has been seen to be a unifier regardless of race or creed, it was jazz that crossed the color boundary all over the United States. Clearly this was the same in Tampa, with the photographic evidence as proof. While Tampa has long been understood to be a cultural melting-pot, the age of jazz music also acted as a leveler, where despite segregation, citizens could, for a night, be made beautifully equal.

     One returns, however, to the people and the places in the photographs themselves. Who were they? What were they? What were their hopes, dreams, favorite drinks, and favorite songs? All one has, are the images, the photographs, and the pieces of narrative that can be painstakingly reconstructed from them.

     Jazz as a mainstream music was short-lived, in Tampa as in the rest of the country. Tampa itself would become a backwater to the exploding music and fashion scenes in Miami, made all the more important a bare decade after the era of Robertson and Fresh and the Burgert Brothers with the Cuban Revolution, and the influx of refugees into that city.

     All that remains are photographs – a historical puzzle, left to the scholar to assemble.

 

Notes

1. Gary Mormino, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams (Gainesville: University Press of Florida,
            2005), 9-10.

2. Robert E. Snyder and Jack E. Moore, Pioneer Commercial Photography: The Burgert Brothers, Tampa Florida (Cocoa, Florida: The Florida Historical Press, 1992), 35.

3. Ibid., 97.

4. Geoffrey Mohlman, Bibliography of Resources Concerning the African-American Presence In Tampa: 1513-1995 (Tampa: University of South Florida, 1995),120.

5. Snyder and Moore, Burgert Brothers, 89.