The gift of the past

In a bag of old, scratched negatives, photographer Mark Lyndersay found priceless images of the Trinidad Carnival of half a century ago

Desperadoes portraying  Frozen North, 1960. Photograph courtesy Mark Lyndersay from the Kingsley CollectionDesperadoes` portrayal of Operation Korea, 1957. Photograph courtesy Mark Lyndersay from the Kingsley CollectionErrol E Payne`s The Vanished Splendour of Russia, 1957. Photograph courtesy Mark Lyndersay from the Kingsley CollectionGeorge Baileys Relics of Egypt. Photograph courtesy Mark Lyndersay from the Kingsley CollectionThe Mighty Sparrow and his mother Clarissa. Photograph courtesy Mark Lyndersay from the Kingsley CollectionYuletide, Home and Abroad, a seminal `big head` band by Cito Velasquez. Photograph courtesy Mark Lyndersay from the Kingsley Collection

The bag of negatives came to me as a gift of sorts. A slice of my past, hitherto unknown except for a few small prints in yellowing family album pages, arrived in a manila georgie bundle, the entire inheritance from my father to his firstborn son.

It wasn’t so much willed to me as it was granted. The photographer should get the old negatives, I imagine my stepmother must have thought, faced with the eclectic chaos of my father’s belongings. There were, after all, an overwhelming number of photos of a couple I never knew among them. Silvery images of a lanky pair, one dark, one fair, in the grip of a romance that would end in a house in St James with three children and dashed hopes.

I only glanced at the negatives when they came to me some days after my father’s interment. I knew that he had photographed musicians, but I hadn’t expected this detailed record of a past that immediately preceded my birth and continued for a few years beyond it, a time I remember only as vague impressions that strobe in my memory. The texture of the crisscross weave of our porch lounge chair. The texture of the lettering of the heavy wooden stereo system.

 

When I finally mustered the determination to make a thorough examination of the bag of black and white negatives, I found more of that unknown history, but I found more still. Images of mas, of calypsonians and their backing bands, a curious, spotty, and surprising record of Trinidad and Tobago’s culture at mid-century.

The work, collectively, could not have begun earlier than 1956 and peters out by 1962 as the interests of Kingsley Dexter Lyndersay wandered more deeply into formal theatre.

During that time, he would embark on many photographic expeditions with his cousin, William Aguiton. He wrote for The Nation, and keenly pushed his lens and curiosity into a culture that was extending boundaries of what had been accepted as proper and tenuously embracing the wild invention that would characterise the music and costuming of the next four decades of Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival.

There are images of Carnival reinterpreting the world of cinema with a wide-eyed wonder. Calypsonians, dapper and fidgety in their tidy suits, seem to be nervously coming to grips with the power of their words.

At their helm was the performer who consumed much of my father’s photographic interest, the Mighty Sparrow, Slinger Francisco, a dashing, taut young man in his photographs, full to bursting with himself and radiating talent from his pores.

 

These photographs were probably processed by Chan’s photographers and among the collection there are a few contact prints and a scattering of colour images, dyes faded to tones of faded peach and vivid reds. Most appear never to have been printed, never reversed from the obsidian, near-impenetrable blackness of the negative. It’s possible that the photographer himself never saw the work finished and presented.

The collection, by the time it came to me 50 years after its creation, had been poorly kept after travelling to Africa and back, appropriately, I suppose, for photos that capture Carnival’s enthusiastic imagining of foreign worlds.

William Aguiton provided a film scanner for the medium-format negatives, extending a hand of expertise to me much as he had to my father, and the business of capturing the images and removing the cruft and abrasion of decades of neglect began… and continues.