During the span of his career as an importer of goods to the United States from the West Indies (1897-1912), Charles W. Blackburne (1860-1936 ) prolifically pursued his interest in photography, methodically setting up his large format camera to expose on glass plates the world in which he traveled. This included Antigua, Barbados, Demerara (a region of present day Guyana), Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Martins, St. Thomas, Suriname, and Trinidad, as well as the many ocean liners he sailed upon to arrive at these distant places.
The surviving collection of approximately 450 glass plate negatives and a smaller selection of film negatives (fewer than 100) document in considerable detail the physical and cultural landscape of these very small Islands at a time when Colonial powers were inspired by the discovery of new markets, new places to settle Europe’s poor migrants, and the desire to “civilize the barbarians”.
What could have been just a simple collection of travel images is fortunately elucidated upon by Blackburne himself, transforming them into a narrative with much greater insight. In elegant red script he briefly describes the subject in each image on each of the corresponding negative sleeves; noting sometimes on location, or an activity, and in the case of a portrait, often identifying the individuals. This has revealed elements within the image that may otherwise not be identified due to locations long since having been restructured, or in the case of one city, no longer existing because of a volcanic eruption. The notations also tell us what Blackburne found most relevant in the image, and often clarifying the focal point of his intent. In some cases, the notations tie many of the images together that would otherwise be visually unconnected – such as identifying a family of children in one image, the family home in another, and then identifying the same family’s mill in yet another image.
Although complicit in this force that continued to assault the Caribbean, Blackburne took some startling and insightful images that serve as observation or even documentation, although not necessarily sympathetic, of the impact of Colonial powers on the Islands. He was after all a broker by trade and many of his friends that he photographed were photographed in leisure activities and assumed positions of power in their respective townships. The writings on the negative sleeves reveal his interest in the specific, such as the names of stores, their owners, government buildings, Lodges, the landscape, and recreational activities. But he also turned the lens of his camera towards the poor indigenous population and recorded, with similar curiosity and specificity, activities such as washing clothes, fishing, the transportation of lumber, collecting shell fish, and selling produce at the local markets, as well as more intimate portraits such as one of a street barber and some, where the entire family is posed in front of their home.
Individually some of the images are remarkable in their beauty – Blackburne’s interest in the aesthetic is clearly underscored by the attention he paid to composition as much as by the discrimination he displayed in selecting what he chose to photograph. Collectively, there is a much richer story being told – one that fifteen years visiting the Caribbean as a trader, and passive observer of a Colonial stronghold, has revealed within the context of one man’s desire to record his experiences in photographs.
Last year, the heavy boxes containing 486 glass negatives were donated to ICP by John Noll, in honor of his father-in-law, Richard Waldmann, who had originally recognized the value of these wonderful images and preserved them for posterity.