By Robin O’Dell
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Tom Kramer’s Palladium Series –
The Other Side of Dance
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Through May 21
Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art
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Dance photography is a difficult and dynamic practice requiring precise timing, knowledge of the medium – and the ability and willingness to collaborate with performers.
One of the greats, who also just happened to live in St. Petersburg, was the late Thomas Kramer (1934-2022). He was busy and prolific nearly right up until the time of his death, and had several projects in the works when he passed.
One of those undertakings is an exhibition at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs, featuring a body of work he created during the Covid pandemic. He and Director/Chief Curator Christine Renc-Carter had decided to focus on his new series called Long Long Skirt.
After Kramer’s death, it was decided to not only go forward with the exhibition, but to use it as a celebration of his long and successful career – adding performances and pairing up with the Morean Arts Center, which was working on a separate exhibition of his work from this same time period (on view through March 23).
That’s where I came in. I had the privilege of knowing Tom while I was the Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts and considered he and his dancer-choreographer wife Paula friends. Renc-Carter had recently been promoted into the Director position and a full-time curator had not been named yet, so I happily stepped in help curate the exhibition portion of the celebration.
By curate, I mean do the research, oversee the photo printing, write the wall texts and labels, design the layout and oversee the installation, since the specific photographs had already been chosen.
The idea behind of this particular series was to capture a diverse group of dancers individually wearing the same extraordinarily long skirt. Through improvisation, each dancer was asked to respond to the skirt’s restrictions and the emotional responses it created.
The results are compelling. Dynamic and sweeping, the fabric becomes its own performer, adding depth and texture to the beautiful bodies of the dancers.
Some of the images feature the dancers’ faces covered by a mask or a veil, an added layer of expression pointing to the lack of connection felt during the pandemic times.
The series was shot over a four-day period at the Palladium Theater in downtown St. Petersburg. Artist Alice Ferrulo acted as creative assistant and provided the props.
This wasn’t the first time the skirt had been used. It was created by Mary Auty Dziuba for a 1989 performance of In Time of Solitude by the Detroit Dance Collective in 1989. This company was founded by Tom’s wife Paula.
The work went on to be performed at the prestigious Merce Cunningham Studio Theater in New York City and later repurposed for a dance piece titled Three Small Dances for Nina by the Moving Current Dance Collective in Tampa in 2004, honoring the Kramers’ new granddaughter.
Paula’s dance company in Detroit was how Tom first started embracing the difficult task of capturing the ephemeral in art. He worked as a still photographer in film and television for such companies as Universal Studios, CBS and Lorimar. He was brought in to document the troupe and proceeded to create a significant body of images over the next 40 years, working for such companies as the Jewish Ensemble Theater, Michigan Opera, the Attic Theater, and the Michigan Dance Association.
In 2001, Tom and Paula moved to St Pete permanently. Here, he continued to photograph dance and theater companies including Tampa City Ballet, freeFall Theater Company, USF Dance, HCC Dance and the Beacon Contemporary Dance series, among many others.
The Museum has brought out additional Kramer photographs from its permanent collection, which are placed on a wall separate from the exhibition. These help lend a broader depth to Kramer’s work on view.
Tom Kramer’s photographs are also in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and the Dance Archives of Wayne State University in Detroit, and have been featured in many national books and journals.
If you plan a trip to the Leepa-Rattner, be sure to check out the small gathering of photographs by another great photographer who passed recently, Herb Snitzer. This exhibition was mounted in his honor and is installed in the Lothar and Mildred Uhl Works on Paper Gallery. Herb Snitzer: In The Present will be on view through June 25.
Snitzer was internationally renowned for his portraits of jazz greats from the late 1950s and 1960s, and this select grouping gives a nice overview of this body of work – and his lifetime spent in support of community activism and equal rights.
Jazz singer and pianist Nina Simone gazes thoughtfully over her shoulder in one, while playwright Tennessee Williams hams it up with cigarette in hand in another.
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