galvanize graphics by bruce cayone

Monday, September 11, 2006

Visibly Absent: Back in Times, by Alex Smailes

At the core of Galvanize is "Visibly Absent", a series of nine artists' projects. This is the seventh in a series of notes on each artist and his or her project.

back in times (4)

From Alex Smailes's Back in Times series

Bio: Alex Smailes has worked as a photojournalist in Haiti, the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, among other places, and his images, the London Times, Le Figaro, Geographical, and Colors. Since 2001 he has been based in Port of Spain. His book Trinidad and Tobago: Carnival Land Water People was published in 2006.

Statement on Back in Times: You see them on the highway. You see them stuck to the lamp-posts as you wait in town traffic. They are bright hand-written signs with very kitsch colour combinations, illegally posted and advertising a "back in times" ball, or old-time dance. But how many of us actually read them, or go and see what they are all about? With dwindling patrons and few newcomers, this cultural project may very well be the last dance.

If you drive past the SWWTU Hall on Wrightson Road, the original dockworkers' social hall, on certain Saturday nights you may catch a glimpse of a lady and her friends easing out of a taxi. They may have tiaras, veils, or just simple red ribbons adorning their immaculate hair. The gentlemen waiting for their dates might be donning three-piece suits, purple velvet two-pieces, or at least silk shirts. Their shoes will be gleaming, along with their gold or silver chains. Balloons decorate the entrance, usually in the colour theme of the evening, giving a hint of what is the expected attire for entrance. These are "colour" balls, and to dress to impress is the idea. Lady in red, purple passion, evergreen, snow white, pretty in pink--to name a few. They have been going on for decades.

I spent about two years documenting and taking portraits of the patrons. Those first few contact sheets, something magic struck me about these people: unabashed, posing, and staring back. I continued to visit as often as possible. I soon started charging small change for the Polaroid to weed out the masses--but if I saw a choice person I would offer to shoot them for free. I soon had regular clients and made good friends. They remind me of family snaps taken at Christmas, a wedding, or a graduation.

I used an old fashioned 6x7 Bronica camera on a tripod and two studio flashes. I made a big deal of setting up, very slowly, setting off lots of flashes to attracted people over. It had the desired effect. Almost too good. I soon had a queue, and after the word got around that someone was giving away free pictures it turned into a bustling crowd. A light was nearly kicked over by a large woman. Others would pretend I didn't exist, and just walk straight past even when I was shooting.

My early influences were the likes of Julia Margaret Cameron, from the early 19th century, who was better known for creating dramatic scenes from literature or religion, but would also often place her subjects in front of a plain dark cloth and let the subjects speak for themselves. Or the early photographers of the midwestern US, photographing regal Indian chefs. Another great inspiration was Seydou Keita, the studio photographer from Mali, whose work between the 1940s and 60s, only recently come to light, is an amazing documentation of society.

In my own sphere of work, being commissioned by Colors magazine to cover stories in the Caribbean, I had to follow their guidelines and style of shooting ordinary people in ordinary places doing ordinary things. And also shoot them in a front-on, plain style. All of this led me to use the plain white walls of SWWTU as my backdrop. The subjects' clothes and own individualistic style would speak for themselves. The poses are their own--I didn't direct them in any manner. Often a single prop would appear in the background, like a empty Carib bottle or even a light cable. I didn't really move anything.

Back in Times will run from 13 to 26 October, 2006, at the SWWTU Hall, Wrightson Road.


Anonymous Victoria said...

I remember the conversation we had when you first started this "Back in Times" project and you were telling me about it. I've thought back on it many times and wondered how it went. That and the boxing. Looking forward to seeing it.

7:44 PM, September 11, 2006  
Blogger the kicker said...

Saw this work in the CLICO art gallery. Was interesting.

10:22 PM, September 14, 2006  
Anonymous Terrence R said...

Good to see the fruits of such long labour.
Touch base with you when you get back.
Looking forward to the book when published.

11:42 AM, October 17, 2006  
Blogger Denny K said...

I was looking up some old 80's soul tunes which reminded me of you (especially Headline News!) looked up your name ot see how you're doing. As I would have expected, you are doing very well!
Best Wishes.
Denny K

3:47 PM, May 16, 2007  
Anonymous Emmy said...

Saw this work in the CLICO art gallery. Was interesting.

9:26 PM, August 25, 2009  

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