Days of Yore - Photographer Margo Davis
Taken almost 50 years ago, Margo Davis' breath-taking photographs of Antigua capture the spirit of a people and document a different time and way of life.
Words By Natasha Were
Young Antiguan Beauty with White Scarf, 1969
It was whilst she was studying at Berkeley, California, that Margo Davis (née Baumgarten) met Gregson Davis, a PhD student from Antigua, who invited her to visit his home in the summer of 1967.
As an outsider encountering a culture different from anything she had known growing up in Connecticut, USA, she felt compelled to photograph it.
For the next five years she returned to Antigua each summer, camera and rolls of film in hand, and spent her days not at the beach, as most visitors did, but exploring the small, rural villages, getting to know their residents and taking their photographs.
The frank, direct gazes that stare out from her portraits are so open and honest – as if the subjects were looking right into the eyes of the viewer – that one is left in no doubt that there was deep respect and trust between photographer and subject.
The time she dedicated to building relationships with the people she photographed was key, but this collection of images was also the result of a special confluence of circumstances, Davis says. It was thanks to her hosts in Antigua that she was able to meet many villagers, whilst back at Berkeley her photography mentor encouraged her to pursue her photographic endeavours. In the later years, having moved to Stanford University, she was strongly influenced by the anthropologists she met there.
“I became an ethnographer,” she says. “My interest in photography merged with my interest in anthropology. Rather than working as a journalist who reports on what they see, I became a participant observer, a part of the conversation – a methodology commonly used by anthropologists.”
“I wasn’t that interested in photographing the hills and the trees and the sea – although I did take some such images to lend context to the portraits – but my main objective was to photograph a way of life. I was interested in the cultural environment, and the ingenuity the Antiguan people employed to survive.”
Indeed, the setting and background visible in each image tell an eloquent story. From the barefoot children dancing to Otis Redding to women cooking outdoors on old oil drums, men at work in the sugarcane fields and mounds of bananas on the dockside, all reveal details of life in Antigua in the late 60s and early 70s.
What lends even more meaning to her photographs today is that they were taken at a turning point in history: in Antigua, the shackles of colonialism were being shaken off, whilst in the wider world, the civil rights movement was gathering momentum.
Whilst black and white photography is undoubtedly a medium of yesteryear that always carries an element of nostalgia, Davis says, these images should not be romanticised.
She reminds us that lives were hard in the aftermath of colonialism; the people had survived despite oppression and slavery.
These photos are meant to celebrate the beauty, strength and resilience of the Antiguan people.
Davis’s images have acquired greater significance with the passage of time. More than a haunting collection of portraits and landscapes, they form an invaluable visual history of the island and its people.
The publication Antigua 1967-1973 is out this October with book launches at Jumby Bay, Antigua in the fall. For more info:
Prints and the book, Antigua 1967-1973 can be purchased at: Gingerlily Airport Shop (departure lounge), Antigua. Open daily. Email: : 268.764.7630
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