Above: Noel Norton photographed at his Westmall studio. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.
Read as remarks at the launch of the book Minshall by Norton at Castle Killarney on December 06, 2019 by the author.
A Photographer’s Perspective on the Carnival presence of the Nortons, by Mark Lyndersay.
History is not made. It is preserved.
We find our past in artifacts. In documents, letters and histories. And we find it in photographs.
Here’s a big jump.
In April 2005, I wrote to the National Carnival Commission to ask them to consider granting special status to Noel and Mary Norton for the 2006 Carnival season.
It wasn’t particularly special.
A waiver on the fees paid to access the venue.
Chairs to sit on.
An open tab at the NCC bar, where they might have sipped at the fruit juice and coconut water.
I never received a formal response from the NCC, but my good friend and journalism colleague, the late Terry Joseph was there when the letter was read to the board. The lone response, he told me, was a question.
What has Noel Norton ever done for Carnival?
I felt anger then, at a Carnival leadership who dismissed documentation as a part of the festival.
I also felt a great sadness at work done in service to the festival’s community that had found no traction at its heart.
That system prized trophies over creation.
There were two phases in the service given by Noel and Mary Norton to Carnival in this country.
The first was to face the war zone conditions of the Queen’s Park Savannah each year to photograph the annual festival as it was presented on stage.
That choking, camera-destroying dust. Those deliberately inhumane conditions for the media. That cruel indifference and open hostility by the staff that corralled us.
They paid for that privilege and recouped some of that cost, along with the metered expense of each frame of film, its development, proofing and printing, with the sale of photographs at their studio.
The second was to preserve and keep that work for decades, with the careful annotations that Mary made on each roll of film serving as a guide through a monolith of imagery.
Taking a photo is one thing, committing to identifying and logging it as a collection is quite another.
Noel was the eye but Mary was the librarian.
One of the results of that persistence is the book that’s being launched today by their children, a subject-focused successor to an earlier work, 1990’s Noel Norton’s 20 Years of Trinidad Carnival.
In that book, Noel inscribed a note in my review copy.
“Be kind!” he wrote. “Remember the obstacles and understand.”
Those obstacles were significant.
What Noel and Mary Norton did across more than five decades was to set an unsurpassed example of commitment to the documentation of culture in Trinidad and Tobago generally and to Carnival specifically.
But they did one more critical thing.
The Nortons showed photographers what self-respect looks like through their industrious and methodical preservation and curation of their work.
This was not a common approach to photography in this country.
The concept of a coherent, organised oeuvre of work examining a single subject and created with a singular vision is not commonplace here.
To be sure, the notion of preserving anything at all seems to continuously elude us.
And if film was fragile, modern photography is even more tenuous.
Most bodies of modern work are one electromagnetic glitch from being reduced to digital gibberish.
But it’s not just the medium. It’s the mindset.
One photographer’s irreplaceable collection of decades of film was kept under a bed until it was lost in a flashflood.
Another huge body of work was recently recovered, and its creators can’t be bothered to come to collect it.
Millions of news photos that didn’t make it into print were either dumped or left to gather guano in dusty warehouses.
Noel and Mary defied those pervasive norms and shared their approach and principles with anyone who cared to hear.
As a nation, we are the richer for both their example and their hard work.
This book is the result of that, and it stands as a partial but undisputable response to that foolish question.
This is what Noel Norton did for Carnival and this book is just a small sliver of it.