‘Slam-Bam’ Sands: ‘The hastily hand-coloured colonial postcards of James “Doc” Sands.’

We are very much accustomed to seeing our islands in various forms of media, anything that can spread the image of our too-blue-to-be-true water. And it is true, we do have some of the most beautiful water on the planet (along with a number of other countries though, we mustn’t forget), and we are – according to certain NASA astronauts “the most beautiful place from space”. However, despite the natural beauty of our landscape, for almost 200 years we have been packaged up and sold as this pristine image that seems to be as clear-cut as our crystal waters.

The colonial era postcards and photographs in the National Collection, ranging in time from what is estimated to be the 1850’s to the 1920’s, give us insight into the era – though perhaps not quite how one would imagine. Photography as a medium is often associated with a sense of truthfulness, honesty, immediacy, and often voyeurism. 

‘Royal Palms at Hotel Colonial’  (estimated c.1890-1930). Handcoloured colonial-era postcard by unknown artist.

There is a prevailing view of traditional photography as a way to capture a ‘snapshot’ as a way of capturing a moment, of showing the world as it was at the time it was taken. This assumes a sort of neutrality that is, if not dangerous, simply false. Photographs are not and cannot be neutral, the assumption of objectivity cannot be true – because they are, like everything else visual, completely subject to the eyes behind the camera.

These postcards and images then, are much better at showing us how we were seen rather than how the place actually looked. The tourism machine of our early British colonial rule produced what in some ways could be considered propaganda. There was an image pushed forward of what we were that wasn’t quite on the mark. Geographically speaking, The Bahamas doesn’t fit into the ideal of the Caribbean tropics: we are not mountainous volcanic islands full of high vantage points to view the lush tropical forest, we are not this imagined eden or paradise. In fact all of the islands in The Bahamas aren’t located in the tropics, some north of the Tropic of Cancer.

The images of Jacob Coonley, a New York photographer who had migrated to take up residence in the islands, and his young Bahamian apprentice, James Osborne “Doc” Sands originally from Eleuthera, became a way to skew the image of the islands to fit an unattainable ideal. Trees were planted with photos in mind, and things were framed ‘just so’ to show the docile native, the wide expanse of untouched land so full of potential. All was set to entice the good people of our ‘civilised’ mother-colony to have no fear, to choose a distant locale to start over, a place to escape the industrial Victorian grime, to heal, to recover.

‘Public Library’  (estimated c.1890-1930), handcoloured colonial-era postcard by James “Doc” Sands.

Where photographs are often seen as truth, so is painting seen traditionally illusory in nature, a trick. Translating a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional plane is, by its essence, is a sort of deception. So how did hand-painting and hand-colouring play into the way that these touristic shots were consumed? This mixture of assumed truth and assumed trickery?

Until around the middle of the 20th century, the majority of photographs were monochrome, so hand-colouring photos and postcards was the most popular method to bring the images to life, to make them seem just a bit more real. The association of the Caribbean with bright colours isn’t just because of our warmer climates lending themselves to greenery year-round, it’s also largely to do with us being produced and commodified in this way: as a tropical kaleidoscope of brilliant colour, but also a place to convalesce. Arguably, the hand-colour of these old postcards has a fair bit to do with this stereotype. While hand-painted photography had much of its origins rooted in Europe, it is undoubtedly the Japanese who took the stirrings of this method and mastered it, starting in the 1860s.

Swashes of green over the previously static black and white images was a way to literally and figuratively add colour to the way the islands were seen. The act of adding this colour is political in its own way, and when we look to how hastily so many of the postcards were coloured, it becomes apparent that there was a sort of urgency or fever in disseminating the images as far and fast as possible.

‘Grantstown Cabin’ (estimated c.1890-1930), handcoloured colonial-era postcard by James “Doc” Sands.

The colour gave the images life as well as vibrancy, and were intended to make them more ‘real’ and exist less in the imaginary – though the painting is clearly so haphazardly done that it was never intended to be reality nor artistry. They were done for easy production as far as we can assume. These indiscriminately painted pictures weren’t just ways to entice, they were also souvenirs – acts of memory under rather murky and false versions of reality.

The technicolor and sometimes acid/caustic image we have now is a development from something that may not have been nearly thought through, a shaky foundation for an industry that founded our economy, identity and sense of self upon.

Perhaps it is time to move out of this base of ‘slam-bam’ colour and into something with a bit more depth? A bit more sustainability? Indeed, it may be time to move away from this image tarnished with age and a warped history and bring into sharp focus an image that may suit us as we are, an image that t shows our sense of our humanity, our independence, our particularities and our nature. This, as complex as it might be, would allow for us to actually find likeness in our own image.