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A Visual Documentation of Sarasota's Past

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann Shank, former Sarasota County Historian
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Manatee County Historical Society

Sarasota History - A Visual Documentation of Sarasota's Past photo

Historical photographs can be a gold mine for the family “historian” as well as the professional researcher. Within the collections of the History Center, a number of photographers' works provide a visual feast for the understanding of Sarasota County's past.

Felix Pinard was the earliest known photographer in the county and maintained an office in Tampa as well as Sarasota. Having arrived in Sarasota in 1886, soon after the colonists came from Scotland, he photographed the first streets, buildings, and people in the area's fledgling settlements. Although many of his photos are unlabeled, they illustrate the expansiveness of the open land, the challenges of living on the Florida frontier, and character of the early communities.

During the 1920s Land Boom, when all of Florida was advertising to the outside world, a number of photographers came through the region and produced eye-catching panoramic vistas of growth in Sarasota and Venice. Others opened photo studios here for several years and left when the economy collapsed.

In the mid-1930s, the Farm Security Administration hired photographers to document the lives of the rural poor, with the aim of gathering support for the various New Deal programs. Marion Post Wolcott was one of the photographers who came to Florida. During a trip to Sarasota, she photographed tourists on the beach and in trailer parks. These photos provide a more intimate view of life here than did those of development in the 1920s.

W. Earl Burnell moved to Sarasota in 1934 for his health, having already established a successful photography career in New York State. He provided many of the photos for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's mail-away edition and was the photographer for the Ringling Circus Winter Quarters, the Ringling Museum of Art, and the annual Sara De Soto Pageant.

An intuitive engineer, Burnell invented a variety of tools and gadgets that facilitated his production of quality photos. His skill and artistry were recognized by the Photographers Association of America in its award to him of the Master of Photography degree. His aerial photographs of the Keys through the 1950s offer images in stark contrast to comparable ones today.

After a visit to Sarasota in 1941, Joseph Steinmetz moved to Siesta Key with his family. Already and established society photographer in Philadelphia, Steinmetz served in World War II at the Navy School of Photography in Pensacola.

In Sarasota, Steinmetz turned to recording the more relaxed life style of the beaches and the rapid growth of a small city. His work includes a number of photographic studies of significant homes that exemplify the Sarasota School of Architecture.

Another focus was the circus, and on one assignment for Life magazine, he rode the circus train from New York to Sarasota in John and Mable Ringling's private car. Twice Steinmetz was awarded the Master of Photography degree and many of his photos are collected at Harvard's Photography Archive.

One of the many photographers in Sarasota today, Arnold Berns has used his interest in black and white infra-red photos to focus on some of the county's historic buildings.