Sunday, August 1, 2010

Roland Rose's photos have put Bahamians in the frame for more than 60 years

By Diane Phillips- The Tribune

Roland Rose was 13 when he got his first camera, an Ansco Clipper he traded his harmonica for with a buddy at school. Today, at 72, Mr Rose is the dean of photography in the Bahamas, his exhaustive body of work as rich in texture and emotion as it is important historically for capturing fleeting magic moments, a portrait of more than half a century of an emerging country’s life and of the soul of its people.

Through his eyes, those who grew up in the Bahamas and visitors from around the world can experience a life of simpler times but often greater pain, of joy and sorrow and hope. They can feel the explosion of energy of the drummer in a photograph so powerful you can almost hear the cymbals and percussion. They can shrink at a wall of water slapping at the lighthouse as 10-foot waves crash and nearly topple the little 14-foot boat the photographer was in. They can see the breathtaking beauty of deep purple bougainvillea and brilliant Royal Poinciana in bloom in a garden lit by the sun with the blues of the harbor just beyond.

They can see the work of a man who has seen so much and told it through a lens, a boy who drove a little boat across from the island where he lived to take laborers for his father’s property overseeing job so he could buy film at two shillings a roll (50 cents) long before the days of digital cameras and Photoshop.

If an ordinary picture is worth a thousand words, they will see the photography that is worth encyclopedic volumes, a virtual Wikipedia of visual wonder.

Roland Rose was born in Italy in 1937 to English parents. “Six weeks before war broke out, we were driving across France trying to get back to England,” he says, crediting his parents’ decision to flee as the pivotal point that would determine his life and career. His father’s position, overseeing an Italian garden, led to the offer from the Bahamas, managing the gardens and property of one of the original residents of what was then Hog Island, now Paradise Island. As a child, Roland and his three brothers roamed free on the beaches where later Club Med would be built and today Atlantis dominates the horizon. But then, it was just endless beach where young boys could fish, swim, snorkel, dive, many days never encountering another footprint in the sand beside their own.

But there was work to do, too, and Roland, being the oldest, got the paying job of ferrying workers.

“I used to go over at 7.30 in the morning every day in the boat to get the laborers for the Killam Estate where my father was working,” he said. He dropped them off, took the boat with his brothers back over to the island of Nassau where they would then climb on their bikes and ride the rest of the few miles journey to school. In the afternoon, the pattern was repeated in reverse. “I earned 10 shillings a week ($2.50) and spent it all on a new camera, a Kodak Retinette I got from (the late) Stanley Toogood. It was one of those products Kodak made in Germany and it cost 14 pounds. Paying that off was an eternity,” he says, laughing at it now. And he still had to buy film. Kodak Kodachrome had just been introduced and Rose’s fascination with colour intensified with a film that began to do it justice.

Trading up before he even got paid for a photograph – his first commission came later, photographing a woman’s rugs for insurance records – was an early indication of his determination to keep abreast of equipment and technology.

“I’m not an antique collector,” he says. “Every time something new came out, I tried it. I have tried to stay on the cutting edge of photography.” What he does collect is classical music. He admits to “over 4,000” records and at least as many CDs, much to his good-natured and lively wife Barbara’s chagrin when he buys more. What he would like to be if he hadn’t devoted his life to photography is a grand master of chess. He used to play on a street corner every afternoon, but the game fell apart when he was the only one who maintained a steady interest after so many years.

Mr Rose is the epitome of a person who has perfected his craft but manages to keep it fresh, always searching for the touch that will make an image memorable rather than a celluloid or digital record. He pours boundless energy into getting the light just right, moving a floor flash to swallow a shadow, re-arranging flowers or furniture to set the stage, reflecting on colour of apparel or backdrop, never taking the easy way out and justifying it with a flippant “This will do.”

He seems to move in fast-motion, a perplexing puzzle. Quick on his feet and filled with surefooted drive, yet socially, a soft-spoken connoisseur without airs (getting dressed up is trading his shorts for long pants) who simply enjoys a vacation in Europe, a fine Bordeaux and classical music.

Roland Rose spent 32 years working for the Bahamas Development Board. When he left in 1982, he left a collection of work that told the story of the country, its march through Independence, its natural disasters and hurricanes, its celebrities and secrets. Tragically, thousands of his photos were later destroyed in a clean-out, set afire, images never to be recaptured.

Fortunately, Rose had some of the negatives and a handful of prints. Friends and associates who had come by his work over the years have given him back photos. With scanning technology, he can re-create some from those originals. One of his most famous, a Junkanoo shot with a former Miss Bahamas in the photo, became an album cover and one just sold on e-Bay for thousands of dollars.

If there is a thread of continuity throughout the work still in existence that spans six decades, it is the astounding beauty of the Bahamian landscape and sea. If there is a distinguishing factor between the ‘then’ and the ‘now’, it is that change has brought a new level of stress and strain to faces. Nowhere is the change more apparent than in a 1960s-era photo when Sean Connery arrived in Nassau for the shooting of Thunderball. It wasn’t the Pan Am tote bag that was such a startling reminder of how times had changed, but the outright broad smiles on faces of the entire group – children, adults, the police and the actor himself even as his limbs and attention were being sought by the crowd around him. Every face was relaxed. The times, they were a-friendly and without fear. Celebrities didn’t have bodyguards. Police weren’t donned in bulletproof vests. Trust reined.

In each of Rose’s photographs, a story unfolds, a slice of life too rich to be ignored. In black and white, they tell of passion – a drummer of burning drive, a child filled with wonder, an old man’s hands worn and crinkled from honest labour. In colour, they paint a landscape bursting with brilliance. Black and white shots require simplicity, he explains: “If you are shooting in black and white, you have to keep your images very simple, clean images. Messy images don’t work in black and white but they work in colour because of the colour.”

Colour is his preference, but that, he says, is because of where he lives.

“The colour of the Bahamas is the most wonderful thing in the world.”

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