By Natalie Willis
“On the Way to Market” (ca. 1877-78) by Jacob Frank Coonley looks to be a work in progress, an experiment, with boxes in the foreground and a window decidedly within the frame of the shot. Ordinarily, a background so carefully constructed with thatch palms and painted fabric reminiscent of crashing ocean waves or rolling clouds in the sky would have been cropped just-so to eliminate the packing boxes and everything else to make us see clearly that this is a studio. There is no mistake then that studios are spaces of production, as markets are spaces of consumption.
As outlined in Dr Krista Thompson’s ‘An Eye For The Tropics’ published in 2006, the period of Caribbean history in which this photo was taken saw the region being shaped, shifted, and rebranded as a site of tourist consumption. The ideas of the ‘tropical’ and the ‘picturesque’ as they relate to the Caribbean were being formed at this point, with patiently framed shots of palm trees, beaches, and quaint clapboard houses being produced en masse and distributed in postcards and the like.he tropical was being advertised and sold to convince and change the minds of dubious populations in the mother-colonies.
While most of these images were being shaped and framed outside, planting trees specifically for photographs and for making the islands seem ‘cultivated’ and ‘tamed’ was being made real, being made manifest, and being made ever so slightly polished. The coconut palms were now lining streets instead of being dotted on beaches, and there was an abundance of silk cotton trees and poincianas to complement these efforts. So if most of these images were taking place outside, why bother with photo studios and with producing an ‘inside image’ as it were?
Just as the landscape was being shaped and polished, so too was the image of the people here: the ‘smiling native’ trope and the ‘mammy’ archetype. And photo studios and people armed with cameras became the localised and mobilised factories through which these representations were mass-produced. As we see this woman posed as though on her way to market, basket on her head with some rather confused turkeys, one bird clutched in her arms, and her head wrapped to suit the mammy image and to suit the difficulty of the work. As viewers, we are left wondering who she is, where she came from, if this is truly her job or part of her life or if this narrative around her is as out of place in her character as the thatch palms tacked to the walls and littered around the photo studio. We don’t know her name, yet she is posed and waiting for the image to be taken, and it is possible that this story was constructed by the eye behind the camera. Often, that eye was ofEuropean-descent, male, and with enough money to own a camera, enough to put his name on the image though hers remains unknown.
The eye behind this particular image is Jacob Frank Coonley. An American born in 1832, Coonley was an accomplished photographer in New York before he moved to work in The Bahamas in the 1870s. He donned many hats, working previously as a landscape painter, colourist of photographs and Civil War photographer. But he was primarily known in the islands for his work with landscape photographs and studio photographs - as well as the tickling advertisements for his studio in the local paper. As Thompson outlines in “Bahamian Visions,” an exhibition whose research acted as one of the predecessors to ‘An Eye For the Tropics’, she shares one such advertisement: “[g]o have your picture taken, and your beauty (if you have any) perpetuated and if you have none the Artist will make it appear as though you have” (Nassau Guardian II January 1896)
Amusing at first, there is no doubt, but when we look at the bigger picture of not just how the islands were shaped but how images of women, particularly women of colour, were shaped things become more uncomfortable. The subject of this image has become an object of experimentation and the tropical, a test in Coonley’s studio - or so it appears. There is a power in looking, in being able to be the person doing the looking, in being the person with the powerful gaze to shape an image, we know this as a people who are not a product of this time, but whose society and image was largely produced in this time. In the production of this representation, there is an idea of not just producing an image for someone, but also of speaking on behalf of someone.
A passage by bell hooks, the black feminist theorist, comes to mind: “There is no need to hear your voice, when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still [the] colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk.” As hooks outlines in "Marginality as a Site of Resistance" (1990), there is an allusion to the consumerism and consumption of people, stories, a culture that harkens back to the time when the subject of this image was pictured.
While we are dealing with times so rife with others speaking for others, and indeed for Others, it does us well to take a moment to perhaps quiet ourselves and think before we speak, before we have knee-jerk reactions, before we decide we know what is best for a space we all share. As Roxane Gay so aptly put it, “Some women being empowered does not prove the patriarchy is dead. It proves that some of us are lucky.” We can’t move forward when some are left behind. This image might not say these things explicitly, but they open up this conversation and dialogue we so desperately need. We can’t know Coonley’s thoughts and intentions, nor those of the unnamed woman posing, but there are several things we do know: the social conditions of this time, the start of the tourism industry what this did, and how we come to know ourselves as Bahamians within this construct, and the great imbalance of social power and mobility we still see today. The lushness and abundance alluded to by the turkeys and palms only highlight how at this time, the grass was only greener for some; there is still much to be done so all can play fairly in this market.