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Sunday 17 November 2019
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‘Pictures from paradise’

Pictures from Paradise: A Survey of Contemporary Caribbean Photography

(Robert & Christopher Publishers, ISBN: 978-976-95344-7-6, pp.222)

IN THEIR introduction, editors Melanie Archer and Mariel Brown make clear their intentions.

“Pictures from Paradise seeks to examine the ways in which contemporary art photography has evolved within the English-speaking Caribbean, rising beyond idyllic scenes to tackle more intricate issues,” they state.

“Within the past few years, regional artists working with the medium of fine art photography have provided us with an increasingly searching image of the Caribbean and the people who inhabit it. In recognising that the region is not the picture-perfect paradise of traditional depictions, these artists focus instead on what is not easily seen or that which is often ignored – the complex social, racial, political and physical relationships and landscapes that exist within the Caribbean.”

This is a book many have been waiting for. It succeeds — spectacularly — in not only showcasing the work of established and newer artists, but also in going beyond the old clich?s of what photography from “the tropics” is thought to be about: building a far more complex picture which makes us stop and think about history and about some of the issues we deal with on a daily basis. Indeed, as the editors suggest, these pictures aim to photograph that which we cannot see or do not wish to see.

The book, which is beautifully designed, features work by photographers from all over the region. The artists include: Ewan Atkinson (Barbados); Marvin Bartley (Jamaica); Terry Boddie (Nevis); Holly Bynoe (St Vincent and the Grenadines); James Cooper (Bermuda); Renee Cox (Jamaica); Gerard Gaskin (Trinidad and Tobago – whose ‘Trinidad Artist Project’ is featured, including an image of this reporter); Abigail Hadeed (Trinidad and Tobago); Gerard Hanson; Nadia Huggins (St Vincent and the Grenadines); Marlon James (Jamaica); Roshini Kempadoo; O’Neil Lawrence (Jamaica); Ebony G Patterson (Jamaica); Radcliffe Roye; Alex Smailes; Stacey Tyrell (Canada/ Nevis); and Rodell Warner (Trinidad and Tobago).

Each of these artists could probably fill a book on their own. What is most striking, however, is how the design and structure of this book (there are four main sections of work around the themes of ‘Tableau Vivant’; ‘Documentary’; ‘Transformed Media’ and ‘Portraiture’) allows photography to interact with what might be called “digital art” – itself a relationship recently examined in a show at Alice Yard curated by Christopher Cozier called “Shot in Kingston: The Digital Scene.” Thus, the book is not, strictly speaking, just about photography, but literally about pictures, produced with the photographic art in mind.

The book allows the work of each artist to speak on its own. In some instances, the work of artists we have encountered before transforms when placed together in these mini-galleries and alongside the other work. This was particularly the case with the work of Cox, whose staged “portraits” featuring what appears to be a disenchanted trophy wife say something completely different when massed together, page after page, and then placed alongside Atkinson’s 2005 “doll house” series.

Also of note is how some of the artists (including Hadeed, Smailes, Warner, Patterson and O’ Neill) seem to straddle the categories and trouble the categorisations themselves. For instance, there can be no doubt of the power of Hadeed’s work which, in simply documenting almost forgotten aspects of Trinidad culture, makes a bold statement about our times. But the photographs themselves each seem to tell their own story and cannot be limited to simple categories. Each piece has a tone and carefully calibrated mood which brings out ideas from its subject which we might not normally meditate on. This is particularly true of Hadeed’s “Victoria Square Outdoor Project.”

Something as equally powerful happens in the “Documentary” work of Smailes, proving that photography is equally about what is in the picture as without. Bynoe, too troubles, the idea of photography. Portraits are stripped and mixed like collage with digital images to create moods and associations which would not otherwise arise.

Bartley’s work is another example of how boundaries are being transgressed. His images are extremely complex, satirical nightmares. They are flippant and deadly simultaneously. They deal with suppressed histories and stories in a haunting and powerful way. Here is no Paradise, but rather the places in Dante’s Commedia.

By juxtaposition, the editors invite comparison with Cooper, who strips down his photographs to the level of depictions of leisure. But in the process, and notwithstanding the jokes he makes, there is a feeling for the depth of the sea, the human body and the idea of eternity. (Cooper’s ‘Fishing Line #2’ graces the book’s cover).

There is a lot in this book and perhaps readers should best discover it for themselves. For sure, Pictures from Paradise is more than just an excellent coffee-table item: it is an important document which goes some way towards highlighting the diversity and power of photography and the digital arts in the Caribbean today.


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