Updated: Sep 20, 2021
The Illustrated Story of Pan, Second Edition by Kim Johnson, Chapter 1. Photo of Corregidores, Barataria.
Towards the end of the opening chapter in my recent Illustrated Story of Pan, "The Archaeology of Memory", is a photo of Invaders steel orchestra, circa. 1960.
The chapter is as much about research into photography as about pan, and I use the image to make a point about how we relate psychologically to photographs. Or rather, how we used to relate to them in the good old analog days, before photoshop and selfies.
I reprise the book’s en passant discussion here because it raises bigger issues related to our changed relationship to photos, to oral history, to printed books, even to reading and writing. In some ways those changes echo our changed and devalued relationships with one another.
Photo courtesy of Ray Holman.
Sixty-plus years after his photo was taken, the 16-year-old boy on the left was awarded an honorary doctorate by UWI for his contribution to music. He is Ray Holman.
The other boy was as musically gifted, but he died in 1973. He was Montgomery Williams – "Monty" for short – the son of the great bassist and bandleader John “Buddy” Williams, brother of the jazz bassist “Happy” Williams.
After the photo was taken Ray Holman remained in the world of pan to become one of its most creative composers, but Monty moved on to keyboards, which he explored in the band that he fronted: The Cassanovas. I don’t know why they chose that name but Monty became a favourite of the ladies, our first pop star.
About ten years after the photo was taken, Monty Williams moved to New York, seeking bigger lands to conquer. Jenny Gibbs, his beautiful, petite girlfriend and her sister June, were airline stewardesses. They visited the Big Apple regularly. On the night of Friday 19th October 1973, Monty, Jenny and another airlines employee visited June in her 6th floor hotel room.
By then, according to town-talk, he was on drugs.
The fourth person was asked to leave around 11.30: Monty and the sisters had personal matters to discuss. Later hotel employees heard a heated argument and screaming coming from June’s room, after which both sisters were silenced – thrown out the window. They died instantly.
Around 3.30 on the Sunday morning Monty stepped in front of a subway train.
Now, return to the photo armed with this foreknowledge and we find that it transforms our sense of time. We've suddenly become invisible time travellers. How? Why?
Formerly, in the century and a half when analog photography held sway, say until the mid-1990s, a photo was taken to be a tiny slice swiped from the moving river of Time. Every photo was, we felt, a moment of time frozen on celluloid. It somehow almost magically captured and preserved a tiny trace of the event, in this case Ray and Monty playing pan.
If, for instance, one had to choose between a blurry photo and a clear portrait by a great painter of some important historical figure whose appearance no one knows today – say, Jesus Christ or Mary Magdelene or Mohammed – most people would prefer to have the blurry photograph before the detailed portrait painting.
That’s why photographs, images printed on bits of paper, were kept almost like talismans. The picture of the woman you love, or the daughters who own your heart, or the moment when you on the stage was larger than the rest of your life, that photo somehow contained a piece of that reality, that moment of innocence and beauty, and preserved it from being swept away.
That magic is why pre-industrial tribesmen sometimes felt that photos stole a part of their soul. Indeed, it's why we can see a photograph taken before you were born, of your father as a young man for instance, and "re-cognize" him. That is, know him again, even though you couldn't have known him at the time.
A slice from Time’s river, it was like a window or a doorway through which we could have seen and touched that past moment. Consider Ray and Monty again. You are there before them in 1960 in Invaders, but you know the future, Monty’s and Ray’s, even the band’s. You know that T&T will become independent in two years’ time, that Ray will shake up the steelband world with his arrangements for a competition that doesn’t exist yet: Panorama. And you know Monty’s tragic fate. Look at his concentration, his confidence. You can see that he will grow into a handsome man. Maybe if you're philosophically inclined you might muse on how beauty can be a curse. But mostly you feel an urge to tell him: Don’t do it, a terrible thing will happen. And sadness because you can’t speak and he can't hear.
That's how a photograph works on our minds, because we've evolved to be emotionally moved by speculating: what if....? That's why Olympic bronze winners are happier than silver medalists: the former are glad to squeeze through the door, whereas the latter fret over how close they came to gold. Or, consider a thought experiment: two men rushing to the airport to catch their flights. Flight A departs at 6.45 p.m. and flight B at 7.15 p.m. There's a huge traffic jam and the travellers reach Piarco at 7.15, just as flight B is lifting off. Both have missed their flights, but somehow the traveller booked for 7.15 feels worse. He can't help but think, and be upset by, what if....?
So, in contemplating Monty in 1960, somehow we find ourselves saddened and frustrated because we cannot speak to him 60 years ago, not noticing that said boy has been dead for half a century.
Personal photographs were uncommon back in the day, they took long to develop and print and costed money. You couldn't see them right after they were shot. That's why the copies film directors get in a hurry are called "rushes". But today's ubiquitous digital cameras - every cell phone has one - have made photographs a form of immediate gratifiction and common as dirt - and only slightly more valued. It's not their devaluation I lament so much, however, as their disenchantment, their loss of magic, their untrustworthiness. They are are just as capable of lies as words out of any politician's mouth. A photograph is no longer irrefutable evidence that something happened.
In an interview with pannist and composer Eugene Novotney, Professor of Music and the Director of Percussion Studies at California State University-Humboldt, we spoke about The Illustrated Story of Pan.
"What do you consider to be the most significant aspect of your research in terms of what you have been able to document regarding the history of the steelpan?" he asked.
Thinking through my response killed a piece of my soul. I explained that, in a profound way The Illustrated Story of Pan was a swan song for a world that was but is no more and will never be again. Photography could no longer be considered an irrefutable truth-teller as before, not since photoshop - as if truth mattered today, to the point that I wondered if it ever really did. Paper was no longer the only or even the main medium for the reproduction of these disenchanted images. And books, even for me a writer, were no longer the main go-to resource for knowledge.
I told him that mine was the last comprehensive book of the sort that could be written about pan.