On local photography, a 2012 overview

Photography's resurgence
An overview of the surge in photographic activity during 2012, originally published in the Sunday Guardian for December 30, 2012.
Coolie Girl, The Jocelyn Arnott Collection, courtesy Paria Publishing.

In 2012, photography seemed to be moving from the sidelines to centre stage in the art world, or at the very least, onto walls normally reserved for the admiration of paintings and sketches.
With no less than three major showings this year and three accompanying documents coming out of those projects, the craft of photography became a subject of conversation and reevaluation in the arts space.

The three shows, Pictures in Paradise, a gallery talk and running slideshow in support of a hefty regional overview of contemporary photography, the Art Society's Record : Art : Memory, an Independence anniversary inspired overview of the craft as public archive and
10, Alex Smailes'retrospective of his work in Trinidad and Tobago, each brought different perspectives to the contemplation of what photography means in 2012.

The work on the walls of Smailes'exhibition, large prints held to the spare white walls at Medulla by tiny magnets articulated the photographer's ethos of no fuss accessibility to the work. The photographer eschewed a formal book in favour of large sheets of images printed by the Guardian on high brite newspaper and bundled informally into a brown cardboard box with identifying information silkscreened into it.

Funeral of Billy Danglade aged 13 Morvant Trinidad 2005, photograph by Alex Smailes

Emphasising low cost accessibility for the work, Smailes priced the work affordably both on the walls and collected in the casual "box set."
Smailes'approach to photography is useful to note, because he's the only photographer whose work is represented in all three shows and documents.

British trained and war-zone honed, Alex Smailes came to this country at the turn of the century to work on a book project that he hoped would explain this part of his bloodline, first for himself and then for his readers.
Over the course of that decade he evolved his attentions from the issues of the region to those of hard knock families living within just a few blocks of his office at Fernandes Compound.

At his artist's talk at the end of his show, Smailes traced the route he took since coming to this country and choosing to settle here, closing the talk with new digital images that sparkled with the hip, colourful gloss of modern visual branding and eye candy seduction.

The work is at a striking remove from the grit and ruthless honesty of his journalism, those images reeking of a disturbing reality. The newer images, for which he is no doubt much better paid, offered an invented truth constructed out of Caribbean flavoured elements with which he had become intimately familiar.

Has Trinidad and Tobago been good to Smailes and his work?
Is it good to photography at all?

These three shows all strove mightily to address the latter question, positing visual theses to support varying roles and value that might be assigned to this business of taking photographs.
It's a useful question to be considering at this time in the craft's development in this country.

Photographers in Trinidad and Tobago, in numbers never before seen in what was once a small market, are struggling with the constantly changing expectations of image making, the massive consumption of images through the firehose of often dubious Facebook postings and a vigorous newbie enthusiasm to become the next big thing.

Two decades ago when I served on the Art Society's board, Carlisle Chang, never an artist to mince words, allowed my presence as a representative of the plastic arts. If he were witness to today's explosion of software driven artifice and gimmickry, he might be prone to dismiss the whole cycle of undisciplined exploration as a spastic art, I'm sure.

Local photography finds itself in a curious place now, accorded the respect of exhibition and ennobled by the success of these three projects, it finds itself elbowed onto a table of more rarefied considerations.
This is quite an accomplishment, having skipped the torturous debates and demanding reconsiderations and deconstructions that accompanied such artistic upgrades in the first world.

The respect accorded to photography as a visual art in Trinidad and Tobago has received a welcome boost from that international acceptance of the craft as occasional but not necessarily automatic art, but the architecture that supports such an elevation is almost entirely missing.

In that absence, Melanie Archer, a designer with strong curatorial credits and Marsha Pearce, a doctoral candidate with a modernist view of creative arts, have emerged as coordinators and explicators of this new shift, bolting together a superstructure beneath this rapid ascension of photography almost as quickly as it soars.

Both Archer and Pearce have either been involved with, present for or consulted on the production of all three exhibitions and their role in making this new appreciation of photography as art sustainable is not to be underestimated.

Which doesn't mean that there are no issues. Photography is, for the most part, a straightforward craft, made even simpler by modern cameras and technologies which almost completely remove the need to think about fussy things like exposure and focusing in today's picture taking.

Kodak may have had to advertise that it would do "the rest" for hopeful photographers a century ago, but today's camera owners simply accept that the magic box in their hands, whether it be an iPhone or a high-end digital SLR, knows more about the details of picture taking than they do.

Such smart processors and programming have made it possible for almost anyone to take a good picture, but they have increased the gap between good and great quite dramatically.
Into that canyon have been poured filters, Photoshop actions, enhanced dynamic range imaging and dramatic transformations that seek to lift image making beyond the cleverness of cameras, but so many of these effects, best summarised by the popular Instagram, substitute style for considered thought and effect for creative authority.

Photography that aspires to lasting value, let alone art cannot simply be good anymore, it must inform, infer and engage on a quite different level.
That was the message of the Art Society's
Record : Art : Memory (henceforth AS:RAM) which turned out to be a culling of the best of what's left, a curatorial exercise undertaken by Abigail Hadeed, whose search for photographs taken over the last half century was as much a funeral for lost works as it was a joyful celebration of the important works celebrated at the society's Federation Park headquarters.

Even among the works that were featured, some were offered anonymously, their authorship long ground up in the laissez faire bureaucracy of newspaper filing systems (more on that here: http://ow.ly/gbcCv), others the result of an accident of wealth, expertise and curiosity that led to privileged eyes using expensive cameras and film to record ordinary, attractively quaint lifestyles.
These photographs draw their power and capacity to move by bringing the ruthlessly faithful record of film forward by a more than half a century to eyes that have never beheld such sights.

That capacity to record and the malleability of today's photographic works bring two branches of photographic approach into inevitable conflict and nowhere was that clearer than in
Pictures from Paradise, billed as "A survey of contemporary Caribbean photography," by its producer, Robert and Christopher Publishers.
Between the covers of the 200 plus page book, co-edited by Mariel Brown and Melanie Archer is a wide ranging collection of work from Caribbean photographers that cleaves cleanly between artifice and documentation.

Pictures from Paradise offers a collection of works that are striking in their often quite divergent motivations, offering the dramatically spare works of Abigail Hadeed, Radcilffe Roye and Gerard Gaskin, the faux documentary works of Renee Cox and the artist as photographer explorations of James Cooper, Holly Bynoe and Marvin Bartley.

It's quite beyond the scope of this contemplation to delve deeper into the wealth of work offered up by Paradise, but the book quite clearly explicates the challenges that tomorrow's photographers will face in finding an effective way of expressing themselves.

Is photography art, then? A more compelling question might be whether it needs to be. Much of what's called art is so described because it's paint on a canvas, but that doesn't stop it from also being uninspired hackwork, attractive, market focused daubings that match household decors but stir no souls.

At its best, photography is photographic, whether it's built out of film grain or pixels. There's a direct line of visual connection between the delicate beauty and ornate details of the Indian betis in the Jocelyn Arnott collection at AS:RAM and the hyperreal Hasselblad digital composites of Marvin Bartley.

Both works are as determinedly photographic as they are different in execution, but both champion photography itself as a goal worthy of pursuit, with the determinations of art left to other forces and agendas.
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