BitDepth#862 - November 27

The Art Society's recent exhibit of photography raises questions about how the legacy of the nation's photography is being handled.
Art for memory’s sake
Documents as art at the Art Society’s recent exhibit of photography. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Major photographic exhibitions don’t appear on the local cultural landscape very often, so to have two big shows on two consecutive days last week was almost unprecedented.
Alex Smailes’10 celebrates his decade of living and working in Trinidad and Tobago and photographing in the region and Record : Art : Memory is a retrospective of images that covers much of the last decade with some 19th century documents from the records of the Police Service.

The quirky collection, curated by photographer and Art Society director Abigail Hadeed spoke not only to the way we were, but also to the way we record and archive our past.
As a participant in the show, I’m in a poor position to review it, but there are aspects of the collection that are worth considering beyond the actual visual content.

While she was talking to photographers and gathering work for the project, Abigail Hadeed told me one evening about how troubled she was by the condition of some photographer’s collections and how many bodies of work were scattered or discarded.
In today’s world of photography as second language, it’s hard to imagine a time in which everyone wasn’t able to take a picture and capturing an image was a complicated technical exercise from end to end. There were far fewer photographs around as recently as eight years ago and dramatically fewer places to display them.

Images were less artifacts then than they were objects of purpose, illustrations of product for advertising, instruments of public relations and visual reinforcement for journalistic reports.
Once used, they were effectively done and active archiving was limited to those photos with reuse value. Those tended to be headshots that fit neatly in a single column in newspapers, agreeable official photographs that promoted the corporate mission and striking pack shots that appeared in dozens of advertisements.
Harold Prieto’s official photo of an Angostura Bitters bottle lasted almost a decade as the defining image of that product.

Hadeed’s survey of photography touched on advertising images, but it was really rich with people, from images of richly attired betis through Carnival to fashion and theatre.
Those photos followed an unusual arc, from the technical richness of much older images, probably shot on medium format film and printed professionally for dedicated amateurs, to the hastily processed and printed, fiercely contrasty images prepared on press deadlines to today’s pixel rich photographs captured by younger photographers like Laura Ferreira and Kibwe Braithwaite.

It’s those press images I kept coming back to though, with their grainy high contrast truth and adamant anonymity, now identified only by the names of the newspapers that paid for a photographic department to capture them.
Who shot these pictures, I wondered? How was it possible for the organisations who set as their mandate the recording of history, one day at a time, to discard such basic identification?

These works were souped in hot developer and printed on high contrast paper before being baked to a shiny finish in less time than it takes most of today’s photographers to download and view a digital shoot. Now they are an amorphous, anonymous monochrome mass, some perhaps created by forgotten giants like Hubert Alexander, Tony Forte, Noel Saldenha, Ossie Cordner and Carl Newallo.

It seems churlish in today’s world of instant feedback and approval via one-click Facebook likes to find these images branded corporately rather than creatively, becoming historical memes bereft of authorship.
In the exhibit, they are printed large, their contrasty grainy boldness speaking to an immediacy and hasty drama that was the last bulwark of truth in imaging.

Today’s malleable, almost uniformly beautiful pixel captures have none of that character, and anyone can create almost perfect digital facsimiles of reality that are more the result of the genius level computer programming in today’s cameras than any intervention by the photographers aiming them.

I’d had the experience of popular interest hijacking my ownership and authorship with my photographs of Michael Jackson and Janelle ‘Penny’Commissiong, among the very first photographs I’d done that drew any significant attention. On Jackson’s death, the photos began popping up with no author identification on Facebook and I kept tagging them to slip a lariat of authorship onto them.

Also striking were the directness of the curator’s image choices. These are images that are less art than information, the bluntness of their conveyance of history speaking directly to the power of photography to record in exhausting detail that which memory scrubs to its essentials.

These are photographs that are, for the most part, literal, and draw their power from their subjects, not from today’s enthusiasm for 'editing,' that innocent word that covers so many Photoshopped atrocities committed on images in the hope of adding a patina of importance and impact.

If these images trigger an instinctive “like” in the mind of the audience that visits the Art Society’s headquarters to view them, it’s because their subjects have been honoured by the photographers who captured them, choosing to honour their everyday splendour with clarity and good faith.
Both shows continue this week at the Art Society’s headquarters and at Medulla Gallery.

Photography as a vocation
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