Ingrid Pollard, The Valentine Days #1 "Negro Girls, J.V.13994”, 1891/2017.

Ingrid Pollard, The Valentine Days #1 "Negro Girls, J.V.13994”, 1891/2017.

Image by Courtesy of Ingrid Pollard/The Caribbean Photo Archive/Autograph ABP

 Daniel Nelson

 

Making Jamaica: Photography From The 1890s is a powerful example of how to give a place a makeover.

 

The island had a gruesome history: enslaved by the Spanish and British and the native population wiped out – today we would call it genocide. Slaves were shipped in and forced to work on plantations. Thousands died in rebellions and wars. Indentured labour was imported. Emancipation led to the decline of the once-lucrative sugar industry.

 

No Blair Foundation or public relations firms were on hand to offer their services, so in 1889 the Governor organised a makeover. He established a group, subsequently known as the Awakening Jamaica committee, and told it to promote Jamaica as a modern colony ready for investment and tourism.

 

The committee in turn hired a Scottish company to produce promotional photographs of the potential new paradise. The pictures of busy streets and of beaches and harbours were sold and circulated, and were featured in the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and in a book.

 

The current exhibition at Rivington Place in London is made up of a selection of the pictures, from a private collection in the US, together with a few others from the 19th century.

 

And what a delight it is. A series of lantern slides of Jamaican life are so sharp that you peer at the people, willing them to tell you what they were thinking as stared at the camera.

 

There are fascinating views of Kingston, women in long dresses, hatted men, and of rubble in the city after the 1907 earthquake, and a wonderfully Arcadian ‘Ferry on the Rio Cobre’, as well as “Fisher boys’, ‘A brown girl’ and ‘A Negro Boy’.

 

The pictures conjure up a city, a landscape, an age. They are instantly recognisable, proof of the efficacy of the overall image they created.

 

 Lest you get carried away by the romanticism of Jamaica as a commercial and tourist paradise, the first photo as you enter, ‘Pastoral Interlude’, ‘is captioned: “…a lot of what MADE ENGLAND GREAT is founded on the blood of slavery, the sweat of working people …an industrial REVOLUTION without the Atlantic Triangle.”

 

However attractive the idealised present and the optimistic future, the past has a way of making itself felt.

 

It’s another fascinating exhibition that justifies the gallery’s involvement “with photography, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights.”

 

* Making Jamaica: Photography From The 1890s is at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place, EC2, free, until 22 April. Info:  info@autograph-abp.co.uk/ www.autograph-abp.co.uk

+ Also at Rivington Place: The Great Conflict, Brixton Riots & Other Films, until 22 April: nine short films featuring rare footage of Brixton during the 1960s and ‘70s by Clovie Salmon, “Sam the Wheels” (because he was a bicycle repair man), who was among the first generation of migrants from the West Indies to settle in UK; free.

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