Noel and me

Published in U Magazine (the Sunday Guardian's magazine of the day), in February 1999.
The photograph below did not accompany the original publication of this piece, but it's how I like to remember Norts in the prime of his career, a lion with a medium format camera.

Noel Norton photographed at his Westmall studio. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

Sometimes it feels as if I have known Noel Norton forever.
Before I met him, I knew his work, which always loomed like an unreachable benchmark of excellence in a field I was struggling to understand, far less to master.

I have been a photographer of one sort or another for twenty years now, and it seems surprising to realise that Noel has been a photographer for only forty-five years. The breadth and scope of his work has always made his presence in the photographic landscape seem to arch back much further than that.

Perhaps it is because so much of what we knew as Trinidad and Tobago has disappeared in that time. The rapid industrialisation of this country, the urbanisation of our people and the ravages of an American culture delivered to us via television and radio have changed fundamentally the things we revere and consider important.

Norton’s sensibilities reach further into our past than that. He came to photography as an adult, already married– and involved in a job that offered reasonable renumeration. He did not have to become a photographer, but to look at his work over the years, it is clear that he really had no choice.

Given what he knows about photography, the work of Noel Norton is remarkably free from artifice and critical presence. It is not his way to seek answers to the world’s problems in his images but rather to record those aspects of his personal world which he finds valuable and satisfying.

It used to be said of photography that the camera cannot lie. To say that is to misunderstand the nature of the craft. Photography works in milliseconds of reality, each slice of time a tiny bit different from its neighbour.

When we work well, photographers manipulate the relationship between elements we can see and capture a moment that realises something special about them in time, often freezing something into reality that we cannot see until after the fact.

We are no less prone to a point of view than a good reporter is. In our dedication to capturing reality, we are often presented with an opportunity to find an angle or a juxtaposition that brings our subject, the light and the environment together in a way which pleases us.

In the world of Noel Norton, Trinidad and Tobago is a far better place than the one which greets us on most days. The people are happier and more secure, the countryside is warm and lush; we live together in peace and harmony. If this vision makes his work seem unrealistic and a little passé, then it is our vision of the world and the cynical harshness of modern photography which makes it seem that way. Noel still photographs his world the way he has always seen it, with hope and a grand belief in the better nature of his fellow man.

It is a vision which has informed his work since his earliest days, and coupled with a wry, sly sense of humour so generous and careful it is almost imperceptible; he has created a body of photography which is unequalled in modern Trinidad and Tobago for its unity of theme and spirit.

Even if we do not all know it yet, he is photography's Naipaul and Chang, its Walcott and Clarke, a local artist who has transcended the limitations of his medium to create works which define it in the context of the national landscape.

A painfully private man, Noel often seems aloof and a little distant to a stranger. I took my film to his studio for three years in the early eighties, hardly catching a glimpse of him in that time. There were always pleasant young ladies to handle my business and his wife, Mary would come out to explain away the most awful of problems with a stern but concerned expression.

After three years of this, Noel asked me to attend a meeting. He offered me a job at a new lab he was involved in setting up and I remember being stunned. He had been looking at the film I had been sending in to be processed and studying it all that time, marking my development as a photographer.

I think it was at that moment that I decided to make photography a lifelong commitment and I will always owe Noel for the vote of confidence he gave me when I was still very unsure of myself in the business.

A few years later, I got fired from a job in Public Relations and decided that I would finally become a photographer. I drove over to Marli Street, knocked on the door (was well past closing time), and let Noel know that I had decided to take the plunge.

He smiled a really broad smile, the one he rarely shows to acquaintances and simply said, “Welcome to the business,” extending his hand to offer a firm handshake. I was to remember that moment several times over the next few years when I would end up ketching my arse in amazingly complicated ways.

Once things got so bad that I spent a couple of evenings talking to him about my situation and hearing his take on it all. After all his decades in the business, Noel had seen many people come and go and he was sage and clear in his understanding of the cycles of the business and the fashions of the times.

Norton is our premier archivist of Carnival, the resource to which we turn when we hope to retrieve a long junked costume or prove that a thing existed which all but a few have forgotten. He was a fixture in the Savannah photographing the annual festival before there was a North Stand and a Grandstand as we know them today. He photographed robbers and jab jabs when the parade was just a straggling few costumed characters marching past rickety bleachers.

I sat next to him for several hours on Carnival Tuesday, quietly marvelling at what a great gift he is, to have come from so far and still find the energy and the time to capture the energies and spectacle of the mas.

Still quiet and unassuming, he was the longest serving Carnival worker at stageside that day, manning his post with serene reserve and quiet dignity. Mary, as always, was at his side, quietly taking roll after roll of film and logging their contents.

I have come a long way since the first time I met Noel Norton and I have learned many valuable lessons about both photography and comportment from him. I will probably never be the gentleman he so indubitably is nor will I ever be able to live with the humility he so effortlessly conveys.

When Norts agreed to be photographed for this story, I thought with the brashness of youth 8that it would be a good idea to have him do a photograph of me in turn. In his presence though, I became a fumbling bundle of nerves, apologising for my lights, asking after his preference for equipment, all while he gently shrugged and said, “Whatever you want to do is fine.”

We took some photographs, and somehow I managed to gather the cojones to ask him to do the photograph of me, explaining at uncalled for length about how it would be a “matched set”. Noel graciously acceded, taking the photo which appears on this page.

As he got ready to leave, we chatted about computers and photography, the subject that he is busy researching these days and I thanked him for taking the time to come over to the studio.
Noel paused for a moment and very firmly said, “No, no, thank you.”
I still have a hell of a lot to learn.

Related links...
BitDepth#818: The winter of his heartbreak
Understanding Noel (2005)
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