I first met photographer Gerard Gaskin in the early 1990s, when he was visiting Trinidad to look into his family roots. Gaskin lives in New York, but increasingly contemporary art practice has eroded the traditional boundaries between Trinidad and its diaspora. Mutual curiosity and shared experiences entwine, and critical spaces for new ideas and exchanges are rapidly expanding our visual sense of ourselves.
Some years later, I was lucky to accidentally encounter Gaskin at work. He was photographing the rapso artist Ataklan outside his grandmother’s home in Morvant, east of Port of Spain. Even though they were standing in the street, using natural light and perhaps one small reflector, the photographer’s lens and the artist’s nose were mere inches apart. It was an intimate exchange that I myself would experience nearly a decade later, as Gaskin’s Trinidad Artists portrait series took shape.
Gaskin says he was influenced by the American photographer Richard Avedon’s American West series. Avedon’s images transformed ordinary working-class Americans into cultural icons, through the stature of his artistic vision and the grand larger-than-life scale of the final prints. But Avedon was also renowned for his unique and highly influential images of celebrities. Gaskin and his subjects, however, are mutually and comparatively unknown, and avidly searching, through their respective creative mediums, for their way and place in the world.
Gaskin’s portraits zoom in even closer. He wants to isolate the person and the moment even further. The impact of the world around the subject can be logically inferred only from the light, the expression, or from what is reflected in the eyes. The subjects are potentially unmasked, but at the same time made unfamiliar, as all the usual indicators of location are removed. We now reside within their psychological space and their direct gaze — looking back at us and very aware — through the lens.
“A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks.”
— Richard Avedon
In the Caribbean, the way we see ourselves and our world around us remains locked in either competition or complicity with ways of seeing derived from colonial and nineteenth-century anthropological enterprises. In Trinidad, you can follow the sequence from the early painter Michel Jean Cazabon through portraitists like Boscoe Holder and Irénée Shaw, from the early touring photographers to contemporary practitioners like Noel Norton, Jeffrey Chock, Mark Lyndersay, and Abigail Hadeed.
Portraiture in Trinidad, and in the Anglophone Caribbean in general, is never a simple matter. To borrow from the vocabulary of art theory, our “to-be-looked-at-ness,” our role within the frame or field of pictorial representation, is a highly contested one. Standard historical narratives of the region recount or register developmental shifts from persons being privately owned property, indentured workers, and colonial subjects, to being citizens — of a republic, for example. But in the pictorial domain, we are still anthropological, cultural, national, ethnic, or electoral commodities and signifiers. We remain labelled but nameless images.
The question is whether the purpose for taking the image shifts to real portraiture, and not simply image-capture, in the worst sense of the term, leaving us as subjected signs of ourselves, in a kind of cultural doppelgänger-ing that disturbingly reminds us of our traditional role within a visual territory not exclusively of our own making. The Bahamian art historian Krista Thompson describes this as participation in the “visual economy of people as images” in the construction of the Caribbean picturesque.
In Gaskin’s Trinidad Artists, a story about location unfolds through the encounter of various individuals engaged in artistic practice. What might a similar series have looked like ten or twenty years ago? Few narratives about Caribbean creativity make it past the early dialogues and personalities associated with Independence-era nation-building. The individuals Gaskin has included have not quite found their places in that cultural narrative, and thus seem even more odd and unfamiliar.
Even though each photograph focuses on a single encounter, Gaskin’s ultimate goal is to present the images as one work, in one space, to see what all the faces and their stories say about a place like Trinidad. “By photographing artists I learn from them,” he says. “Part of my process is to talk with the artists about themselves. We are always trying to feed off our environment to use the place we are from to create work. I didn’t grow up in Trinidad. I am just trying to understand my vision a little bit.
“When I sit down with John Stollmeyer and he talks to me about his uncle the cricketer, that is a great lesson. When I sit down with Jaime Lee Loy and she talks about being Chinese growing up in Trinidad, then I sit with Mark Lyndersay, who grew up with my cousin, and talks with me about my family, that is a great Trinidadian story.”