Understanding Noel

Understanding Noel
Or why Mr Norton is the most important photographer living in Trinidad and Tobago today.
I wrote this in October 2005 at the request of Mary Norton for the leaflet distributed to visitors to Noel Norton's exhibit at The Gallery at CLICO, which ran from November 08 -18, 2005.
The exhibit was mounted in honour of Noel's honorary doctorate from UTT that year.

If I note that when Noel Norton closed his studio at WestMall in 2004 it was the end of an era, it’s only because it was really the beginning of another one.
Noel, who began his career developing black and white prints under his bed had sold off rooms full of colour processing and printing equipment to move his operations into the digital realm, carving space from his darkroom at home to create an oasis of bits among the bottles of chemistry and angular metal of vintage enlargers.
Into this space he has parked an Apple Power Macintosh with a huge Nikon scanner and is enthusiastically rediscovering his work with a sense of wonder that’s remarkable.

When we went shopping for his monitor and mouse at a downtown computer store, Norts stood his ground in the chaos, albeit apprehensively, as young turks hollered and shunted packages back and forth all around him.
In steeling himself again to venture into this digital realm, Noel has plumbed the courage and curiosity that took him to the top of his profession and kept him there.
A Noel Norton photograph is a distinctive thing, it is romance and wistfulness, a yearning for a classic, simpler beauty.
The images may be of people, serene and immortal in dyes of his impeccable prints or of scenes of a long lost or endangered Trinidad and Tobago captured in the visual amber he creates with his lens.
In all his photographs there is an infectious hope, a passion for life and a yearning for a pure ideal that he sees with such clarity.

Many of Noel’s portraits, the images that most reflect his signature touch have been commissioned in his studios, where his gentle touch with lighting and tender realisations in the darkroom have produced a collection of definitive photographs of the movers and shakers of our times, along with those who could afford to look like movers and shakers.
It’s safe to say that Noel could have made a safe and quite comfortable living doing just that for his entire career, but those portraits are just one example of his appreciation of the human condition.
He roamed the world with the late Norman Parkinson, photographed working people in their environments and arrived every year at the Savannah for Carnival, patiently recording the annual masquerade as it grew and matured around him.

Noel was there when the bands rolled by on trucks in front of rickety bleachers and he was there last year; the whoomp of the soca roadmarches blaring and the children of children he once photographed shaking their bejewelled hips at him.
These are the consequences of a working life that has spanned five decades and encompassed almost everything that we can point to as uniquely “us”.
Along the way he has inspired many proteges, young men and women whose lives he has touched and inspired in the ways of photography. Some of us are no longer quite so young anymore, but we all feel like children in his presence, after learning a little of what he had to offer.

It’s worth wondering, if only for posterity, just what makes Noel so very special among the photographers of Trinidad and Tobago. Some of it is a special aptitude for the technical that only enhances a subtle but relentless eye for the art in his subjects.
This was a man, after all, who supervised the factory at the Myerson Tooth Company, a business that marries technical skill in crafting hardware with a result that’s meant to inspire.

For every person who missed the opportunity to have teeth created under his purview, there was someone who was lucky enough to have him interpret them with light and emulsion.
I won’t be foolish enough to suggest that this award or this exhibition marks a milestone for Noel. No, I’ve seen what happens when people try to do that.
Years ago, at our professional association's awards presentation, a colleague made a vaguely patronising speech about Noel that suggested that his time was past.
Now this was after Norts had received the Chaconia Medal Gold, so I’m sure that it was meant with respect and love for the man’s accomplishments...but it pissed him off. So he went out, shot for a year and hammered us all at the 1993 awards show.

Noel is the most important photographer working in Trinidad and Tobago today because the sweep and breadth of his work is genuinely epic. His most popular photographs have so entered the public consciousness that they have become visual cliché.
His archetypal picture of Dr Eric Williams, sneaked across a dining table while the politician solemnly considered whether he wanted to be photographed, his majestic rendering of Sir Solomon Hochoy, last bearer of an Empire’s majesty in these islands, the little old lady with the corncob pipe in her rocking chair age weathering her chair, the smiling cane cutters, so cheerfully flattered that the photographer wanted a picture of them.

To look at these photographs is not to see photographs but to be lost in reflections of a shared history.
In the end, Noel must be appreciated as his peers appreciate him, not just as an artist who has stood tall among us for half a century, but as a standard bearer who brought pride and respect to our profession and set a benchmark for excellence and attitude that we must meet or be shamed.

He has been a businessman, working his talent in the service of his art and the raising of his six children and the care of his wife of more than 50 years.
His work has been anchored in commerce, but it has soared with his intuitive eye to set an example for all of us who hope to make some money and some art.
That he has done this so consistently for so long is one of the blessings that has so gifted this country. He is, for photographers, our Naipaul and our Chang, our Walcott and our Clarke, but he is also indelibly, our Noel, and we love him for it.

Related links...
BitDepth 799: The wind cries Mary
BitDepth#818: The winter of his heartbreak
Noel and me (1999)
blog comments powered by Disqus