Jacqueline Bishop: Tell me a little about yourself. Where you were born, your upbringing, schools you attended, and how did you get interested in photography?
Robin Farquharson: I was born at Magdala, a private clinic in the town of Black River on the south coast of the island. The doctor present was the renowned C. D. Johnson – a remarkable man who on occasion performed minor operations and delivered babies “in country parts” by the headlights of his motor car; apparently “the humblest, humblest little thatch cottage was a castle when he walked in. And he never liked to take payment from the poor for his services, it was his calling and he loved it.”
His home he named “Invercauld”, after a castle in Scotland near Aberdeen, belonging to the Farquharson clan (the local Farquharsons were dominant at the time in commerce and politics in Black River, one member serving as Custos of the parish). The doctor’s elegant seaside mansion was said to be first ‘pre-fab’ building in Jamaica, c. 1900, its entire kit imported by boat from England and assembled on spot.
This is a house that I photographer many times in passing: “The Late Doctor’s House” in 1974, with kudzu vine attempting a takeover, and a year later “Gathering Storm”, after which big fat raindrops began to splash down on my camera, sending me running for cover.
Though I was born in St. Elizabeth, I grew up ‘next door’ in the parish of Westmoreland. My father was a ‘Planter’ (in the words of the time), a large landowner who had inherited 2000 acres from his father. As a child in Jamaica I observed that white people did NOT do manual labour; imagine my surprise on my first trip to England in 1949, aged five, when I witnessed white men in shirtsleeves shoveling steaming piles of tar to mend the road outside my great-aunt’s house in Bristol?
My first school, when I was six, was known as Gibbey’s, near Malvern, in the hills of St. Elizabeth. That was the first time I’d come across red dirt as we don’t have that in Westmoreland, and there was no electricity either as I recall, light was by kerosene lamps and rat-bats ruled the night. They flew with impunity under the shingle roofs and sometimes almost brushed us with their wings.
Next I was enrolled at DeCartaret School in Mandeville, one of some seventy boys; we attended classes and slept in dormitories housed in a 3-story castle-like wooden structure that looked out over the valley below. The school had it’s own library room, chapel and assembly hall where once a month we had pictures (movies), usually in black & white, shown on a 16mm projector. This was my first ‘real’ school where I began to read for pleasure and was required to draw insects and such for science class. I knew then that I could put things in proportion on the page – even then, a budding artist!
After that it was England, to a special school where classes were small and we were expected to cram a lot of learning into our heads in a short time so that our disparate bunch of boys from far-flung lands with different school systems like Brazil, Argentina and Jamaica could pass their Common Entrance exams. I passed into Public School and there followed an undistinguished academic career highlighted only by my discovery that I had a passion for Art.
When in my final term, recruiters from Voluntary Services Overseas (V.S.O.) visited the school, I signed up for a year to go and work somewhere exotic – but not Jamaica, of course, somewhere new – somewhere with tall coconut palms, moonlit nights and grass skirts; I had it all planned.
However during the VSO summer orientation that followed it was decided (because of my art skills) that I was to assist with a government architecture project at Jos, in the highlands of Nigeria where temperatures at 4000 feet were cool in the day and cold at night. When I arrived by boat at Lagos I was met by a gentleman from the British High Commission who pointed out that the plans had changed and I was to be sent to Ife, not Jos. There was a museum of antiquities there that required an assistant. Needless to say the warm clothes never did get unpacked.
The professor in charge of the Ife Museum was Frank Willett and though he away at the time he arranged for me to photograph certain artifacts using the museum’s Nikon F camera. I had only common sense to guide me but I progressed and ultimately saw my portrait of him on the dust cover of his book “Ife in the History of West African Sculpture”.
This practical experience with the museum’s camera was coupled with meeting a visiting German archeologist who showed me his small Leica camera: I was truly amazed that such a small instrument could produce the extraordinary detail in the prints he showed. I think that was the beginning of a commitment to photography, though I did not realize it at the time.
In any case as a child my interest in photography was piqued by my father when he took me out for a drive – I must have been ten or eleven – and showed me how to use his Zeiss Ikon NETTAX, a compact folding camera that used medium format film. My father had been an avid practitioner in the 1920s, with his own darkroom, and had, at one time, contemplated turning professional.
That day we came upon an overturned farm tractor and my picture shows also the shadow of his colonial pith helmet that was his working attire. Much later, in 1973, I photographed him in the cane fields with this helmet. I called the picture “The Watchful Eye” which is true because he had lost the use of his left eye decades earlier when a stick of sugar cane came loose during loading and struck him.
JB: I love your "Old Jamaica" series. How did you come to start doing that series? Did you know right away that you were doing this series or did it evolve slowly?RB: “Old Jamaica” came of course from my objectives with the camera: to recapture those earlier times – the older Jamaica – that I remembered as a child.
The title “Old Jamaica Series” came about when I made my first poster of Tree Horse at Rappaport Printers in New York in 1986. I believed at the time that I would make more than one poster of my work, hence the term ‘Series’.
The “Old Jamaica Series” has its roots way back in my school days with my introduction to Art at school in England.
A house Prefect had had the bright idea that every member of the house would paint a picture so that our House could be the first in the 400-year history of the school to mount an art exhibition. So in due course I set out to do my part, wending my way across the school grounds and climbing precipitous creaky wooden steps to the Art Room which was housed in a Tudor building, a former schoolroom once attended by a son of Oliver Cromwell.
The rest is my story. First it was the smell of the artist oil paint as I mounted the stairs, then it was the vision of paintings on easels, the pale lacquered wooden floor, the light from the windows… But the clincher was when I took several large art books from the cabinet and began to look through them: Rembrandt (brown and boring) Van Dyck (more of the same) van Gogh (Oh! LOOK at these colours!!!). From that point on I became obsessed with the paintings and drawings of Vincent van Gogh, I read about him, absorbed his interests and even copied two of his paintings.
When I returned to live in Jamaica in 1970, it was like stepping out of a Time Machine into a landscape at once familiar yet surprising. I saw women seated on tiny stools breaking stone with hammers, like Gustave Courbet’s 1849 painting “The Stone Breakers”, I saw a mule circling around a mechanical cane hoist, each revolution cranking a load of sugar cane higher. I felt like a visitor from another world equipped with experience of the future, yet aware of the limits imposed by time. I knew I had to get moving.
Translating the images of van Gogh into the Jamaican context was easy: here were familiar stout women bent in field labour, men cleaning the soil, hoes raised in the air, mule and donkey carts clip-clopping their way along the roads (easily overtaken by motor cars), men with axes crafting canoes from tree trunks, smoky piles of dirt & sticks burning coal. Here was my world of van Gogh: canoe makers and coal burners instead of sowers of seed and weavers at their looms. All I had to do was work the camera – black & white became my ‘drawings’, colour film my ‘paintings’.
JB: In the "Old Jamaica" series, what was it, to the best of your knowledge, were you trying to show about Jamaica? Why did you think what you were showing might be important?
RF: I was intent on portraying the older rural culture, because it is part of the island’s social history and would inevitably change and eventually disappear; because I was a part of it too and wanted to preserve those aspects that moved me with their echoes from my childhood. My job was to record or present it in a manner that was visually graceful, uncluttered and descriptive without words. I wanted to make pictures that revealed the subject, not the presence of the photographer: I wished to be invisible in this work – a ‘fly on the wall’ so to speak. I am a documentarian at heart, but mere facts alone are not always interesting, it is the point of view on facts that makes them interesting, so the photographs must become highly selective in order to make the point. I want my pictures to ‘speak’ to the viewer, and for the viewer to respond with recognition.
Though I consider myself an artist (a convenient title that covers a multitude of practices), this was never an art project, this was history business; in fact at stages along the way I chided myself that I was holding my artist self in check, devoting all my time to the discipline of invisibility.
JB: I notice that you called that series "Old Jamaica." Does that mean this Jamaica no longer exist? If yes, what Jamaica do you believe now exists and what responsibility do you feel to document this “new” Jamaica?
RF: The Jamaica I have focused on will gradually fade away as its members die off. That Jamaica is already being replaced by new generations with better access to information. Better educated and therefore more affluent. But it will not change overnight.
Do I feel a need to document “The New Jamaica”? Not at all – when this project is wrapped up I shall turn my camera onto more personal subjects. I will have done enough documentary work for one lifetime! I shall unleash the artist and let him run free to see where he shall go – perhaps full circle, right back to Jamaica again?
JB: Have you done other series, outside of the "Old Jamaica" Series? Also, what are some of the new directions of your most recent work?
RB: In 1969 I was toward the end of my time in Nigeria. I had photographed for UNICEF and the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] the feeding and medical assistance to refugees from the civil war with Biafra. It was around that time that I met an Englishman who had arrived in Nigeria overland from Britain. His stories of the journey were fascinating; I hadn’t even thought of leaving Nigeria by that route, and it sounded intriguing. Shortly thereafter I cashed in my Lagos/New York airline ticket and with another young English fellow set out north across the Sahara desert.
That trek of seven weeks in the desert resulted in a series of photographs being published in 1972 by Popular Photography Italiana in Milan. They became my “Sahara Series”. The original black & white prints were transformed in the Rome darkroom to the bleached-out sepia colours of the landscape and the walls of earthen buildings. This technique I discovered by chance, and the results were dramatic: I went from despair (at the sight of my poorly processed gray prints) to joy (at the sparkling quality of the images after treatment); my work preserved from oblivion by luck and determination, by my willingness to ‘try anything’.
Since the arrival of the professional quality digital cameras, I have tackled the computer-based learning curve and am on the first rungs of that ladder. Digital is very scientific, the options for technical control are virtually limitless and I have found it quite challenging to negotiate my way from the simple settings of film cameras.
That said… I now revel in the visual possibilities available through the computer: colours can be easily intensified or reduced, elements can be added or subtracted, but with this new ease of transformation comes the responsibility to use the tools with care because what is easy for one person is easy for another. And ease of use makes everyone an expert. Which comes right back to the point that photography is not about technique, it is about vision and presentation.
For the 2008 Biennial show at the National Gallery in Kingston I resurrected three pictures from the mid-seventies and reworked them. One is called “Taking A Break”, a black & white image of six severed calf heads hanging on hooks in an abattoir. I was very shocked when I first came upon them, and there is the figure of a worker standing in the doorway. I treated the image to a sepia-brown colour that looked very appealing within the brown frame, so that the viewer’s first impression would be of comfortable, pleasing colours, followed by shock of realization at what was so casually depicted.
One of my recent pieces is a snap shot of a woman sleeping on a traffic island in the city in the heat of midday. I noticed her while I was waiting for the red light to change and had time to make two exposures before horns began to blow. I knew right off that this was a strong image, but how to present it? I wanted to get away from the detailed documentary aspect because she did not deserve to be put on the gallery wall and examined by the well heeled; it was tough enough that she had had her bed on the ‘cold, cold ground’.
I used Photoshop to modify the image so that her face and figure were less recognizable, and then, playing around with Filters came up on one that added the infrastructure that I felt the image needed. “Between The Lines” was my second successful foray into the world of digital manipulation.
Each image for presentation has its own requirements; there are no formulae. I trust my instincts, my logic and experience to guide me in the treatment of future images for show. Each so far has been a welcome surprise, something for which I am grateful (my ‘Guides’ looking after me), and something which brings me the satisfaction of producing something new and fresh, for my aim is to make pictures that I’ve never seen before. Of course that is near impossible, but it is my intent, nevertheless.
Recently I exhibited a self-portrait that looked manipulated, but was in fact just a lucky combination of shutter speed, afternoon light & shadows. I then found myself in the curious position of needing to defend the fact that the image was entirely camera-generated and NOT the result of image editing software!
JB: I assume that "Tree Horse" (perhaps your most iconic work) is one of your favorite pieces. Tell me how you went about taking that photograph? Did you know, the moment the shutter was closed, that you had a special image?
RF: “Tree Horse” is my most popular image; I think it must be the contrast between the ‘activity’ of the tree roots as they cover the foreground, compared to the absolute stillness of the horse; also the tree itself is remarkable, its intricate trunk and branches so well angled for the my photograph!!
It was hot day in June 1975 when I was passing by and glimpsed the horse. I saw right away there was a picture to be had, but I was convinced the horse would move away the minute I climbed through the fence and began walking toward it; I kept my camera to my eye every step of the way. The dry leaves of the Banyan tree crackled noisily as I approached. I was on full alert, poised to press the button, but the horse ignored me completely, with not even a glance in my direction.
When the branches touched the upper corner of the viewfinder in my Rolleiflex camera I pressed the shutter. I made only one exposure, obviously satisfied that I had got what I came for, but with no sense of what the future would bring for this photograph. It wasn’t until a year later when I was invited to exhibit that I made my first print of the previously unnamed image.
JB: What do you look for in making an image? What, in your opinion, are some of your most successful images?
RF: First the scene will ‘speak’ to me and then I have to decide how – and if – to tackle the recording of it. Usually these opportunities appear when I am driving somewhere in the course of my day and I need to decide quickly if there are possibilities in the scene. Actually I have promised myself to stop and at least take a longer look each time this occurs. “Country Man” is a good example: the man was on his way home, a heavy bag of coconuts on his head yet he was happy to pose for the camera; the sun was setting in the West and sugar cane fields made the frame around his near-silhouette.
“Ten Drums To Town” was another instance where I pulled off the road and ended up jogging beside the man for he could neither stop walking nor turn his head to speak. When I finished my car was a quarter mile behind.
My favourite pictures would have to include “Beatrice Palmer”, “The Palmer Family” and “George” (in colour) from an early shoot in 1973, “True Heart” and “Rastafari” also from that year, and from 1974 “The Late Doctor’s House” (in colour) and from 1975, there are many: “Canoe Passing”, “Beach Friends”, “River Washday”, “Barbershop, Kingston”, “Working On The Ridge”, “House Moving, Westmoreland”, “Fisherman, Negril” and “Shelley, Aged Six”.
“S.O.S.O.ism No Way” came the day after national elections in 1976. That year I also found “Old Glass” (in colour) on one of my walks around Kingston.
In 1978 I made “Edith White In Her Bedroom” and “Edith White In Her Yard” that are two of my very best, then in 1982 “The Long Hoe”, “Firewood”, “Cutting Cane”, “Acrobats, Boston Bay”, and then in 1983, “Bluefields” (in colour).
Black & white pictures predominate because my darkroom is not equipped for colour processing and it was essential that I be able to make the finished product in-house and not rely on others. Even with complete control, my job of editing was a difficult one. I began by making small prints of virtually everything. Three months in the dark without a break! Finally I bought a box of 3½ by 5½ inch postcard paper and decided because of portability to make my selection in that format. Eventually this little box contained prints of all my best work, and I watched as new images competed to be included within it, only to be discarded a few weeks later, when the honeymoon was over and I realized that they didn’t make the grade.
I also discovered that small prints sometimes lose their charm when made bigger – just like puppies and kittens, they are cute when they are small – it’s only when the images are enlarged that we see their true quality; some of mine that looked great in the box have fallen by the wayside in that manner.
In seeking out photographs I let my instincts direct me. Situations that refer to the past are an obvious draw; scenes of people doing their daily work are always interesting. Portraits are a chance to examine the character in detail. Everyone seems compelled to strike a pose of some sort – for posterity. The camera functions like a mirror and nowadays because of digital cameras people expect to see the result immediately on the screen. Everyone is curious as to how they look when pictured. When walking with my camera in Kingston, people sometimes call me over and ask to be photographed, even when I explain that I’m using film and they can’t see it right away. They say, “No matter, take the picture anyway!”
Also I try for simplicity in my selection of the elements in the photograph. A first-year teacher at Art School told the class to be aware that “if something does not add to the picture, then it takes away from it.” Simple words, but a profound truth: unwanted items that don’t contribute to the meaning of the image are like static on the radio, spoiling the music.
JB: Finally, as an artist myself, I hate this question, but I am going to ask it of you anyway: Who or what have been some of the influences on your work? Also, how did your technique develop? Did you take photography classes?
RF: Obviously Vincent van Gogh. In the beginning I ate, breathed and slept his work. When I began to photograph in Jamaica it was his paintings and drawings I had in mind. So if in fact I have a style (I’ve been told I have a ‘style’ though I can’t see it) it has developed from that practice. A picture is, after all, a picture, no matter the medium used in its making. I’m very grateful there are cameras to do the hard work of drawing since I know my talents in that department are limited. Eugene Atget has been an influence also. His graceful atmospheric documentary views of Old Paris strike a strong chord with me. He loved the city, its parks and monuments and was passionate about their preservation – which he accomplished in a manner with his photographs.
I imagine Atget as a short man in a long coat against the cold, back bent under his cumbersome wooden camera & tripod as he searched out scenes of the city that moved him, and the curiosity and ridicule of passers-by that witnessed this little man (who it is said subsisted on coffee and chocolate) as he incomprehensibly photographed store fronts and other common views around the city.
At New Hope in Westmoreland there stands a magnificent cut-stone gate made in 1919 by a Trinidadian stonemason. The craftsmanship in the four pillars is exceptional and I have tried and tried again to make a successful photograph that gives full credit to this work of art. To my eyes this gate is a great monument to human endeavor and should be preserved as an example of craftsmanship to be admired by future generations. I understand Atget’s obsession with recording on film the outstanding accomplishments of the stonecutters and craftsmen of his era, because I share it.
As far as my technique is concerned, I don’t even think about it: the less the better. I need only to read the instructions for developing film and then keep the temperature and time accurate, and with digital it is the same, I learn from the book.
In the act of making photographs sometimes a depth of field change is necessary to bring attention to a part of the photograph – then it’s a matter of adjustments to the camera settings and a refocus… but at all times it’s about how to present the image, not about technique for it’s own sake. In the movie industry bad technique is the camera movement that you notice or the scene cut that interrupts; good technique should be unnoticeable: nothing must get between the image and the viewer.
When it comes to camera operation it’s vital to understand how lenses and shutters perform so their special features can be used to advantage. It’s a must to know the equipment well enough that its functions are at your fingertips and don’t require reference to the printed page. If you have to look it up (as I did when I first used a professional digital camera) then you’ve missed at least one photograph.
As to taking classes in photography, I was fortunate to gain access to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1965, majoring in photography. The great photographer Harry Callahan was professor of the department then, and Emmet Gowin a graduate student and rising star. Callahan’s influence was quiet but deep: he designed projects and set assignments that by their variety taught us better how to see. I look back and remember my first weeks at school, examining some student work and thinking: “I could never do pictures as good as that!”
JB: I know I said that the question before was my final question, but it got me thinking about something else: What has been the impact on your work of digital photography? Have you made the transition to digital photography? If you have: Why have you made the change and do you think the quality is the same?
RF: Have I made the transition to digital photography? Not fully. I have a 6x7 format camera to shoot black & white negative film that I process at home, which keeps me in touch with my roots. I like the discipline inherent in having only 10 frames on a paper-backed roll in contrast to the unlimited freedom of shooting with storage cards. Also I find that when I shoot black & white film I see in black & white; when I shoot with colour (digital) I cannot help but see in colour. So for the moment I shall continue with one foot in the past, the other in the present. Will I swing eventually to digital alone? Good question. Answer: probably, maybe, perhaps.
In terms of quality, professional digital imaging has already surpassed that which is possible with film, but those cameras are way more costly than their equivalents that use film. So it is left to amateurs like myself to choose to continue with an older technology, a decision that would be unrealistic in a commercial context today.
Also there is the question of supply: for how long will Kodak continue to produce film? Other film manufacturers have already gone bust because of declining demand. However that is not my worry as I have enough medium-format film in my freezer to last me several years at my current rate of picture taking.
JB: Finally, finally, what advice would you offer to a young Jamaican (or anyone else actually) interested in photography? Whose work, both on and off the island, would you suggest they look at and why? Any chance that we will ever see a book of your gorgeous work?
RF: Thinking about people who wish to find their way into photography, my advice would be to know your equipment first, then point your camera at something that fascinates you and begin taking pictures. After looking at the results go back and do it again – and so on, as many times as it takes – until a pattern emerges and you see the subject revealed. Allow yourself to be drawn into whatever interests you then do the work. When you love what you do, the job is already “half-done”. It’s that simple, really.
The history of photography contains so many great names: Avedon, Atget, Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Robert Frank, Robert Mapplethorpe and many, many others.
I say: Look at them all, ask yourself why the work of some photographers appeal to you, then set out to imitate their style and subject matter in your own work and see where that leads. By copying great work you seek to understand the why & how of a particular subject matter or style, which is always very instructive, and healthy too, provided you do no base your entire career on imitation! Will there be a book of my work in Jamaica? Definitely! Though I have long-since quit making forecasts of it’s publication date; but it is in the pipeline, it must be, because so many years have been spent gathering its words and pictures.