Revisited: John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art – Sarasota, Florida – Part 2

This week we are continuing our trip to the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art. If you missed the first part you can find it here: Revisited: John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art – Sarasota, Florida – Part 1. Last week was about some of the other attractions that are on the property. If you have never been before and if you really like art, plan on spending the entire day there. There are many opportunities to photograph, but as I mentioned before, the red coats are on high alert for tripods and anything that looks too “professional”. Having been there a number of times, I was ready to beat them at their own game.

This week will be all about the Ca’ d’Zan mansion, or in English, The House of John. This was their little pad that they built in Sarasota, Florida. I can tell you first hand there no expense was spared. The Italian marble that was used for the flooring, bath tubs, sinks and wall ornaments alone must have cost a fortune. I guess I need to start a circus. I think I’m living in one; I’m just not getting paid for it.

After the trip to the other attractions, it was time to visit the mansion. I have taken the private tours before and seen all three floors, but I was on a class trip so I did the self-guided tour. As I was waiting to enter, I reached in my pocket and fitted my camera with a 24mm f/2.8. This is a prime, wide-angle piece of fast glass. My beloved 50mm f/1.4 was too long for this project. I knew I was going to have to bracket my exposures to have a half a chance of seeing any detail. Every wall, ceiling, floor and door has some kind of ornate decoration or special something on it, you’ll see what I mean in a minute. A moment later I was instructed that this was a MUSEUM and not to sit on any of the furniture and no flash photography. Check. The red coat flagged me in and I was now standing in the entrance way. I wanted to capture mostly the living room as that was going to me the most challenging. I went through the ballroom (yes, they built a ballroom in the joint) and I made my way to the main living room. The main living room is two stories with a balcony that leads to the bedrooms. I was on the self-guided tour so I was grounded for today. I pointed the camera up and this is what I saw…

 spencer pullen photography john and mabel ringling museum of art sarasota florida Ca' d'Zan windows and artworkCa’ d’Zan – Living Room – Corner Pocket – Spencer Pullen © 2012

OK, there are a couple of details that need to be captured here. If you strip away all of the “stuff”, this is basically a real estate shot. The glass in the windows is special and has many colors to it. I believe the panes of glass came from Italy specifically for this house. On the ceiling, you can see all of the artwork that was hand panted. There is even an ornate light that is on with some decorative touches. All of this has to be captured. Working with regular walls and windows are bad enough, but when they are covered in artwork? Now it was time to see what we could come up with. I wasn’t leaving with crappy photos at this point and being stared down by the red coats made it even more fun. I set my camera up for bracketing, nine frames at one stop apart. This is what my Nikon does by default and it was going to have to do as these things needed to line up later. I set the camera to aperture priority at f/2.8 and turned on continuous shooting. Some of you out there might be scratching your head saying, “Ugh, 2.8? Hello? Depth of FIELD!” I agree, normally I would shoot something like this at f/8, but here is a little trick that I learned. The wider the lens, the more depth of field that you can achieve with a lower f stop. Confused? Lemme try explaining it this way, if I had my 200mm lens on at f/2.8 I would be blurring out the background big time, which isn’t bad for portraits. Since this lens is fixed at 24mm, it’s much shorter and I can get almost the same depth of field at f/2.8 or f/4. If I was using a longer lens, I would have to use f/8 or f/11 to get the same depth of field. Still confused? The best way to see this is to go out and try this yourself. Shooting at f/2.8 at ISO 400, allowed camera to rattle off the exposures as fast as possible. Since I’m hand holding, I need the camera to take them quick so they line up later.

 spencer pullen photography john and mabel ringling museum of art sarasota florida Ca' d'Zan living room wide photoCa’ d’Zan – Living Room – Spencer Pullen © 2012

 spencer pullen photography john and mabel ringling museum of art sarasota florida Ca' d'Zan ceiling windowsCa’ d’Zan – Living Room – Upper Floors – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Here you can see floors two and three. In fact, you can see detail in both rooms. This would have never been possible using a straight shot. You can also see the detail of the glass in the roof. With the sun hitting this in the late afternoon it’s quite amazing. I knew this was going to be fun trying to get this color to come though, not to mention all of the artwork that is all over the ceiling. The bracketing process saved my butt once again.

 spencer pullen photography john and mabel ringling museum of art sarasota florida Ca' d'Zan breakfast roomCa’ d’Zan – Breakfast Room – Spencer Pullen © 2012

They have a room for everything in this house, including breakfast. This was an easier shot as it was a smaller space and there was some light coming in from the blinds from camera left.

 spencer pullen photography john and mabel ringling museum of art sarasota florida Ca' d'Zan tap roomCa’ d’Zan – Tap Room – Spencer Pullen © 2012

John knew how to have a good time; the tap room was his personal bar. It was really dark in here. The only light that was available was the lit stained glass and a small window to camera left that was blinded over. I cranked up the ISO to 800 and hoped for the best. I still needed to be a little more steady so I took the liberty of using the door casing as a make shift TRIPOD….HA! This allowed me to be steady enough to get the frames to pin register. What I don’t have photos of is the vault upstairs. You would think that this would be to keep the valuables safe. Yes, they kept those in there as well, but what was more present in the vault was wine/liquor racks. When they built the house there was a little thing called prohibition going on. As any good high society, they couldn’t have a party without some liquid spirits flying around so I’m sure John made a few trips to the refrigerator vault.

 spencer pullen photography john and mabel ringling museum of art sarasota florida Ca' d'Zan dining roomCa’ d’Zan – Main Dining Room – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Here is the main dining room in the house. This photo isn’t the strongest as I really needed another couple of dark ones to help bring in the chandelier. Since I was handholding I knew moving the dials on the camera would mean that I would loose my alignment. All I could do was hope for the best. Even though the chandelier is blown, you can still see details in the ceiling and into the entranceway and into the ballroom. If you are thinking this table is a little short for such royalty, you are right.  That is because they keep the other 21 LEAFS in the vault. I don’t think I know enough people to fill a table that long.

 spencer pullen photography john and mabel ringling museum of art sarasota florida Ca' d'Zan kitchen chopping blockCa’ d’Zan – Chopping Block – Spencer Pullen © 2012

It was time to go into the kitchen. Being an avid baker and barbequer, I’m always interested to see what kind of horsepower there is available in the kitchen. The cook had access to a top of the line gas stove at the time but was scared to death by it so she opted to use the old cast iron stove. In the corner, the multi colored glass caught my eye again and they staged it with a chopping block and a wooden mallet. I guess that was for beating the crap out of dinner! I didn’t get a chance to take to many photos of the kitchen, but trust me it was big enough!

 spencer pullen photography john and mabel ringling museum of art sarasota florida Ca' d'Zan staircaseCa’ d’Zan – Stairway to Servants Quarters – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Here is the stairway off the kitchen that the servants used. I guess they weren’t allowed to use the main staircase that was all marble. This figure caught my eye and how the side lighting created some nice definitions across the piece. This sculpture was a white piece of marble if I remember correctly. Once again, with bracketing I was able to keep all of the details without blowing out the highlights.

 spencer pullen photography john and mabel ringling museum of art sarasota florida Ca' d'Zan applesCa’ d’Zan – Kitchen – Kitchen Table – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Like I said, my “non electronic” thing is baking. Being here in the fall and seeing those fresh apples, all I could think of was fresh apple pie. I picked up some apples on the way home and made one, YUM! Anywho, this was a straight shot and I liked the distressed table with the side lighting.

 spencer pullen photography john and mabel ringling museum of art sarasota florida Ca' d'Zan exteriorCa’ d’Zan – Exterior – Harbor Side – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Here is part of the exterior that is facing the harbor. I wanted to grab as much height as possible. If you look closely, you can see all three floors and the winding staircase that goes to the very top. I believe that some one told me that on the private tour you go up 101 steps. Wear comfortable shoes! This was a bracketed shot. If I exposed for the side of the house I might have lost the sky and would have been a whiteish blue or the house would have been in deep shade. Either way, it would have been impossible to get this all in one shot in this harsh light.

So there you have it. There is also the actual art museum that has two massive galleries that is full of artwork. John needed money towards the end of his life and his advisors pleaded with him to sell just one piece to make all the bills and fix all of his cash flow problems. His simple answer was, “No”. The art collection was to stay together no matter what. It’s an amazing place to visit and see how this circus man lived in the life of luxury. If you’re passing by and have a few hours to kill, this would make a great place to stop and visit.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. Very nice, Spencer. I like them all, but was impressed with the main dining room. You mentioned about the lights blowing out but the capture of the wood grain on the walls was wonderful. Great Job. And again, thanks for sharing.

  2. You have done such a magnificent job capturing the glory of it all!! So Beautiful, thanks.

  3. I love to visit the mansion. Your photo of the upper living room, with the stained glass, is my favorite. Thanks for sharing.

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