Wish you were here

By Melanie Archer

An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque, by Krista A. Thompson
Duke University Press, ISBN 0-8223-3764-9, 366 pp

Silk cotton tree, Nassau

Ceiba or Silk Cotton Tree, Nassau (1900), by William Henry Jackson. Image courtesy of Duke University Press

Even landscapes that we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product.

— Simon Schama, quoted in An Eye for the Tropics

For decades, the tropics have been picked apart, deconstructed, and then reconstructed, but, as Krista Thompson states in the introduction to An Eye for the Tropics, it is been done so extensively and almost exclusively through literature. She quotes Barry Higman: “historians [of the British West Indies]
. . . rely on words on paper . . . seeing pictures as mere illustrative devices rather than appropriate vehicles for analytical discourse.” With a lively voice that is at once lucid and probing, Thompson approaches this unique critical and art historical standpoint, convincingly arguing that social, political, and racial issues are embedded in postcard imagery. From that point of departure, she then steps neatly into contemporary times, linking those now faded images to the brilliant work of specific artists practicing in the postcolonial era. Her nuanced observations centre primarily on tropicalisation, which she describes as the “complex visual systems through which the islands were imaged for tourist consumption and the social and political implications of these representations on actual physical space on the islands and their inhabitants.”

Although it frequently seems that the old adage holds true, and there really are no new ideas under the sun, only new writers (or something to that effect), An Eye for the Tropics reads as a maiden, thoroughly researched, and highly successful journey over previously unexplored territory. Throughout the book, Thompson — an assistant professor of art history and African American studies at Northwestern University — astutely observes and dissects visual representations of the Caribbean through the specialised medium of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century postcards. Interesting to note, she didn’t start off writing this particular book, but while thinking about how the Caribbean is imagined, her interest was drawn to a set of recurring visual icons, such as the beach and the palm tree, to name a couple. Musing on the origin of images of the Caribbean picturesque, Thompson then set out to understand their history. She traces their historical production while also positing them in relation to their wider implications for continued notions of Caribbean society.

Weaving the interpretation of images with amusing anecdotes and excerpts from long-obsolete publications, Thompson lays out the first three chapters of her book chronologically, focusing on the earliest tourism campaigns in Jamaica and the Bahamas, during the 1890s. She then works through to the 1930s, the first decades of travel trade to the islands, looking at specific companies who benefited financially by promoting the picturesque of the islands, notably “The New Jamaica”. Among these were the American United Fruit Company and the British Elder, Dempster, and Company. Thompson explains:

Although I map what Roland Barthes characterises as “a body of intentions” behind the visual archive these companies created, I am equally interested in how photography often proved an inadequate medium in forwarding their commissioners’ tropicalising agendas. The retouching of photographs (to make the landscape seem more tropically abundant and less modern), the dressing up and staging of photographic subjects (to make them seem more picturesque), and the changing of captions for photographs or postcards (to direct the signification of the image) all belie the inevitable shifts in, yet struggle to stabilise, the meanings of these representations.

She then looks at how these “place-images” informed the subsequent creation and use of space in Nassau, with a particular eye trained on how tourism campaigns affected the racial landscape of the island in the 1920s and 30s.

Chapter three moves seamlessly through the 1930s and examines the ocean’s relatively late yet crucial appearance in the visual language of Caribbean tourism. That the ocean wasn’t used at the advent of the region’s tropicalisation is surprising, given that today the beach prevails as one of the most recognisable scenic icons of the Caribbean. But, as Thompson explains, the ocean, just like the Caribbean’s vegetation and people, needed to be demystified and made picturesque before it could be considered “safe for tourist occupation.” John Ernest Williamson — a pioneer in underwater photography and filmmaking who worked in the Bahamas — proved pivotal in this new way of imaging the sea. Through his work, the ocean was demystified and became picturesque and “safe,” much as the land and people of the tropics had become in the previous decades.

In her last two chapters, Thompson looks at the lingering effect of and local responses to tropicalisation, devoting an entire chapter to one notorious incident in 1948 that caused a massive scandal — when black Jamaican journalist Evon Blake stripped down and jumped into the racially segregated pool of Jamaica’s premier hotel of the time, the Myrtle Bank. Ironically, the security guards, who were black themselves, couldn’t jump into the pool to fish him out, and from his protected status in the water he challenged them: “Call the police. Call the army. Call the owner. Call God. And let’s have one helluva big story.”

In the final chapter, Thompson examines the sort of “afterlife” of these images, relating them to the islands’ ongoing struggles for self-definition, and the contemporary practices of artists like British-born, Bajan-rooted David Bailey and Trinidadians Christopher Cozier and Irenée Shaw.

The postcards, sprinkled through the chapters in black and white, and reproduced in a single insert of colour plates, evoke a vivid memory, a suggestion of a time we have only glimpsed in images. Set in the early 1900s, they depict a premium of men with donkeys, sexualised market women (baskets of fruits echoing buxom curves), and tropical greenery with ubiquitous palm trees lining streets laid out to mimic European boulevards. In many scholarly works, these images are erroneously described as documents of the times, and not what they actually represent: colonial governments’ active campaigns to construct positive images of the Caribbean. In the late 1890s and through the first half of the twentieth century, the Caribbean was seen as a place of death and disease, and governments, especially those in Jamaica and the Bahamas, initiated an imperative to change how the islands were pictured by the developed world. While they emphasised highlighting the exotic nature of people and trees alike (both had to be proven safe), the governments and their corresponding tourism initiatives sought to underscore the benignity of the region through the creation of otherworldly vistas. In some areas of Jamaica, for example, parts of the landscape were razed to create ideal plantation landscapes, which were then promoted as indigenous to the islands. Thompson also focuses on those people who were contracted to create new identities, whether by governments, hotels, or, perhaps most intriguingly, the United Fruit Company, which started producing whole sets of imagined images in the early twentieth century in order to encourage interest in (and, of course, the import of) tropical fruit to the First World.

These images circulated primarily through lantern lamp lectures — a sort of precursor to slide projections, where a speaker would set up in a hall and talk about specific islands, while literally projecting images of the “native” landscape. James Johnston, an instrumental photographer and lecturer working during the early 1900s, “made clear the connection between the imperial picturesque and the new picturesque” during his fifteen or so years of shopping images of Jamaica around Britain, Canada, and the United States. He was particularly fond of one image from 1903 that shows a “Scene on the Rio Cobre”, in which coconut trees line the banks of the river, framing it with cathedral-like grandeur. After declaring the scene a dreamland that should have been the main contender for the colonial stamp, he stated: “Imagine the great palm house at Kew placed here by some kind of geni of the Arabian Nights alongside the water, the cover taken off, and the contents left standing open, and you have some conception of what the vegetation is like that lines the banks [next slide] on either side.” In other words: “Here is a lush, exotic tropical landscape that we planted and are trying to market to you as a lush, exotic tropical landscape.”

Similarly, in early 1900s Bahamas, the silk cotton tree, which “offered a spectacle of tropical nature in all its grandiose and visually bizarre forms,” was the tool most frequently employed to “satisfy touristic tastes for tropicality.” Although very few silk cotton trees existed in Nassau, they became a symbol of the islands, so much so that they, along with other forms of vegetation, apparently adopted human characteristics. One travel account by William Hutchinson and Ellsworth Woodward notes that “the great silk cotton tree behind the government building nodded and said, ‘Glad to see you again sir,’ and the crimson poinsettia and vermillion poinsettia cordially smiled as we passed.” People were pictured dwarfed by the gnarled roots of the trees, which, as it turns out, were actually imported by colonists from South Carolina.

Other images of the period shifted focus from vegetation to people, placing local blacks as backdrops or props used to offset the wonders of tropical fruits and vegetables. Great import was attached to showing the natural, edible bounty of the islands. One James Johnston image, “Domestics with Yams, Cocoanuts, Etc.”, dates to c. 1903 and shows three people posed in a classical triangular composition. Thompson writes: “The agricultural products they hold form the pictorial focus of the image. Like the relegated role of black servants in eighteenth-century aristocratic family portraits, the black Jamaicans serve as peripheral props to the main photography subject: bananas and other transplanted crops.”

Dating from the same year is another James Johnston photograph which today reads as completely bizarre, given that it was used to promote tourism. “Hard Labour” is a seaside scene at a quarry, where prisoners in uniform have set about their task of breaking stones. Images like these were circulated to “lend visual credence to the civilisation of the islands’ black subjects,” and to convey “both that blacks were carefully surveilled, controlled, and, if need be, disciplined and reformed.” Also depicting the islands as tame is “Barbados, Cannibal Canal” (J.R.H. Seifert and Co., 1901–7), a postcard showing a simulated jungle environment at the American-owned Marine Hotel in Barbados. Studying the image, thick riverside vegetation reveals black hotel employees swinging from vines in the trees, hired to provide an extra thrill to the visitors’ boat rides.

Providing a sort of “spot the difference” challenge in the book are reproductions of pairs of images. Consider these: “Jamaica Peasantry” (Cleary and Elliott, 1907–14) shows a group of local blacks sitting on the railing of a bridge eating (or at least holding) tropical fruit, with a couple of random animals thrown in for good measure. “Types of Jamaican Peasantry” (E. Wells Elliott, 1907–14) appears at first glance to be the same picture, but with modest study the differences become apparent. The fruit in the second image has been transformed with an unnatural hue — deepened to attract the viewer’s attention. And, magically, the electrical wires and houses on the hill in the background have been removed and a mass of greenery added in their place — the tropics rendered not just as digestible, but pre-modern.

Echoing those images today, artist Irenée Shaw’s 1992 Gilded Cages series addresses this pre-modernisation of the tropics. In Neighbourhood (oil on canvas), Shaw depicts a view from her window, with power lines emphatically rendered in red, as if to reassert the presence of the modern once detracted in postcard imagery, and in today’s tourist-aimed landscapes. Similarly, Neighbour (oil on canvas) shows a shirtless black man walking along a “tropical” street, bound in the same red power lines, his hands behind his back. Do the lingering implications of tropicalisation render him helpless? A question both past and pressing. Similarly, Christopher Cozier’s Cultural Autopsy series (mixed media on paper, 1995) bears out what it means to be “Caribbean” with a sly wink. I am rendered speechless by your vision depicts a postcard-proportioned painting of idyllic houses set in a tropical landscape that is, symbolically, a small area nestled in the white of the larger painting, while I am rendered speechless by your idea of beauty shows a market woman carrying a ghosted basket of fruit on her head, the same white plane floating around her.

In her concluding chapter, Thompson suggests no miracle cure to counteract the (unintentional yet omnipresent) negative effects of pre- and postcolonial depictions of the tropics. Instead, she neatly wraps up her nuanced discussion with a series of questions: “Given the long-standing connection between the aesthetics of tourism and the politics of the colonial state, how have the continued stakes in maintaining the islands’ tropical yet civilised image informed social discipline and physical space in the postcolony?” And, given that the tourism trade “accounts for approximately seventy per cent of the gross national product of many islands,” “can contemporary independent governments strategically reemploy and reinvent tropical tropes in their efforts to attain political sovereignty and economic autonomy?” Thompson highlights certain imagery that prevails today — tourism campaigns depicting tropical fruits and flowers and ancient ships, inviting tourists to “retrace 400 years of civilisation”, or a Dick Scoones “Colours of Jamaica” postcard (c. 2000), which shows a man and a woman on the beach, turned towards the horizon so their faces aren’t seen. He holds two bunches of bananas, while she displays a sliced papaya, overtly suggestive of sexual openness.

But Thompson notes:

. . . it would be wrong to interpret the story of tourism told here as one of oppression. A perception that tourism colours all aspects of society would flatten the island nations of the Anglophone Caribbean through a new set of Claude Glasses, another vision (or blindness) that refuses to see the complexities of Caribbean society. Indeed, the sketch of contemporary tropicalisation provided here evinces not a singular history of oppression or resistance but, more ambiguously and perhaps optimistically, a tale of practical survival.

To underscore her point, Thompson points to the words of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who suggests that the islands, “out of the shame of necessity . . . sell themselves.” But if these words are to be taken as a dictum, should we, then, set about the task of haggling over price?


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2007

Melanie Archer is former managing editor of DAP/Distributed Art Publishers in New York. She works at Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA7) in Trinidad, and is currently co-authoring a book on the representation of girlhood in contemporary art.