Photo Jamaica

Martin Mordecai looks at StudioArt and the growth of photography in Jamaica

“At a crucial point in my own development as a photographer I had an opportunity to be attached to a gallery and workshop, and it made a big difference to me,” says Peter Ferguson, a leading professional photographer in Jamaica, talking about his early days in Canada. “I’ve always wanted to provide an environment like that for young Jamaican photographers.”

The environment he has provided is StudioArt in Kingston, the only gallery in Jamaica, and probably the anglophone Caribbean, devoted exclusively to photography.

A generally quiet man, Ferguson is passionate about standards, especially in the display of photographs, his own and others. “You must show the work in the best possible way,” he says. “Anything else is to disrespect the work. And the artist. There’s a lot of that around.”

StudioArt’s “way” is based on uniformity: white mounts in black frames, 16 x 14 inches, whatever the size of the print — as small as 4 x 9 inches in some cases. Prints are hung by transparent nylon fishing line. Carefully-angled track lighting picks out each photograph. Nothing distracts from the image itself. And all materials used are archival, meant to outlive the purchaser.

“StudioArt treats your images with great respect,” said one exhibiting photographer. “You see your own work in a new way.”

But as Ferguson is quick to point out, StudioArt is also a workshop. A full professional darkroom with three enlargers and a drying room is available for use. There are facilities for mounting and framing pictures, as well as an office containing a small but growing library of photographic books.

“I want it to be the centre for photography in Jamaica,” he says. “But StudioArt is really for the serious young photographer who does not have access to a darkroom to produce work, with the possibility of displaying it as well.” A photographer such as he himself was in 1970s Montreal, studying for a fine arts degree at Concordia University, with a specialisation in graphic design.

Twelve years after returning to Jamaica and opening his own commercial studio, “2 1/4 Works”, Ferguson and his wife/business partner Paula Fenton converted an old dwelling house next door and created StudioArt.

Since opening in 1996, StudioArt has exhibited the work of 15 photographers from Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Canada, the US and the UK, as well as Jamaica. “The pre-requisite is quality,” says gallery director Harclyde Walcott, a Barbadian, “but we emphasise work by Caribbean photographers. We are the only ones doing that on a consistent basis.”

Over the years a few other galleries have shown photography. For example, an exhibition of work by the internationally-known Jamaican photographer Albert Chung was staged this summer by Chelsea Gallery in Kingston. StudioArt has also mounted two shows of old prints, one from the extensive holdings of the 120-year-old Institute of Jamaica, the second an eclectic collection of old Jamaican images for sale. Both exhibitions were very successful, confirming a burgeoning interest in photography which that gallery has helped to stimulate.

Earlier this year the National Gallery of Jamaica hosted Photos and Phantasms, photos of the Caribbean by the 19th century English traveller Harry Johnston. The exhibition, organised by the British Council and Royal Geographic Society, travelled through the Caribbean this summer. Photography has also been added to categories of work from which the National Gallery selects its prestigious National Exhibition.

Dr David Boxer, director of the National Gallery, is currently doing intensive research on Jamaican photography, beginning with its origins in the 1840s, just a few years after the medium was developed in Europe. The research will result in future exhibitions at the Gallery, and also, he hopes, a book. There are proposals for a museum of photography in downtown Kingston, where many of the pioneer photographers lived and worked, and for two spaces of the new National Gallery (in the planning stages) to be devoted to the art.

This growing interest is welcomed by photographers, who hope to see it translate into sales. None can manage on art sales alone; all must work commercially. But Jamaica’s stagnant economy has hit advertising budgets and art sales equally hard. Professional photographers are looking for ways to cut costs. Peter Ferguson sees a move towards digital photography as one means to that end.

“In some situations digital photography lets you move images more quickly. You can cut out Polaroid tests, processing time and printing, and hand the client a disc that they can do what they like with.” StudioArt has even had an exhibition by one photographer, Patrick Woldemar of Jamaica, comprised largely of computer-manipulated images. The response was encouraging, says Ferguson.

Some professionals, like Denis Valentine, look overseas for sales. Valentine belongs to a New York stock agency, to whom he supplies images of Caribbean landscapes and lifestyles, and “concept” images using Caribbean content. “New magazines needing Caribbean images seem to be on the increase as well,” says Valentine, who also photographs for the National Dance Theatre of Jamaica, and the National Gallery.

For the art photographer and gallery operator, however, these are challenging times. Photographs compete with other art forms for sales to aficionados, who are spending sparingly these days. “We know there’s a market,” says Ferguson. “People come in off the street and buy pictures, so there’s a market. It’s small, but it’s there. You just have to believe in what you’re doing, and keep on going.” ν