Don’t stop the carnival

Mark Lyndersay on Trinidad Carnival: Photographs by Jeffrey Chock

Jeffrey Chock’s carnival photography

Trinidad Carnival: Photographs by Jeffrey Chock, with text by Tony Hall, Hélène Bellour, Samuel Kinser, Karmenlara Seidman, and Kim Johnson (Medianet, ISBN 976951374-1, 190 pp)

Jeffrey Chock’s book of Carnival photographs is an important instalment in the sparse image chronicles of Trinidad and Tobago, and that’s exactly why it’s so irritating to have to note that it’s also a disappointment.

Chock’s work is excellent, a vivid, intimate record of Trinidad Carnival’s energy, colour, and human engagement, but the book is undercut on too many pages by issues of pre-press and reproduction quality that put an unwelcome screen between the viewer and the immersive experience that the photographer worked so hard to convey.

It would be disingenuous of me not to note that I am also a photographer, one who has traversed some of the same streets as Chock, sometimes in parallel with him. I have also had a book of photographs published on quite different subject matter with quite similar results, the gap between what I shot and what rolled off the presses being so large as to be depressing.

Some of the problems with Chock’s images are to be expected. The photographer pushes the limits of both film emulsion and digital sensors to capture images in circumstances that would have been blasted to flatness by a flash or simply left alone by a lesser lensman as too dark. Chock pushes on regardless, capturing in shadowy, grainy blurs the spirit of a Carnival that is shrouded with shadows and lit by slivers of light: stickfighters lit by streetlamps and inadequate floodlights, blue devils descending from the hills of Paramin at twilight, panmen illuminated by the reflections of the stagelighting from their polished instruments. Sometimes there is no light on the subjects at all, their ghostly dark outlines rimmed by the ambient light of the street as they stroll into the city for the festival.

Some of these images suffer in two-page treatments across spreads the width of the opened book, but that’s understandable. Far less forgivable are the images of older bands, particularly those of Peter Minshall, which cried out for careful pre-press treatment to rescue them from the blown highlights and clogged shadows that leave them muddy and lifeless on the page. Better, then, to concentrate on the triumphs of Chock’s art, which transcend the haphazard and largely uncaring technical treatments that hobble Trinidad Carnival’s impact.
Quite early in the book, there’s an image, spanning pages 28 and 29, of blue devils in Port of Spain. It’s an arresting image, because at a glance, it looks like a military incursion into a densely urban environment. It takes a second, more careful look to see that it’s an organised assault of camouflaged, uniformed men, led by drummers, holding a city at bay with the terrible force of their presence. This duality of first impact and deeper resonance informs some of the best images in the book, including one of the late midnight robber Brian Honoré, his hat backlit like a halo; a wining couple on page 76, which looks like a moment’s advantage until you study the woman’s response; and a spectral character from Minshall’s band This is Hell on page 103, apparently neither front nor back, but obviously buying a beverage.

The photographer, so clearly at home with the backwaters of Carnival, the muddy eddies of J’Ouvert, the lewd money-gathering of the blue devils, and the exhausted people who wash up on the streets of east Port of Spain and Belmont, has demonstrably less empathy for the gaudy elements of the festival, offering only perfunctory records of the feathered, beaded flesh parade that’s become the hallmark of the annual wining season.

Trinidad Carnival is a heroic effort from photographer Jeffrey Chock. His passion and intuitive understanding of the humanity that fuels the festival shine on every page. Like most photographic records of Trinidad and Tobago, it’s worth getting while it remains in print. No photographic books recording this country ever go into second printings, and despite its annoying blemishes, this book deserves a place on your library shelf, not just your coffee table.

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), August 2006. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.