An Eye for the Tropics

Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque

An Eye for the Tropics


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Book Pages: 392 Illustrations: 65 b&w illustrations, 38 color plates Published: March 2007

Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Photography, Caribbean Studies

Images of Jamaica and the Bahamas as tropical paradises full of palm trees, white sandy beaches, and inviting warm water seem timeless. Surprisingly, the origins of those images can be traced back to the roots of the islands’ tourism industry in the 1880s. As Krista A. Thompson explains, in the late nineteenth century, tourism promoters, backed by British colonial administrators, began to market Jamaica and the Bahamas as picturesque “tropical” paradises. They hired photographers and artists to create carefully crafted representations, which then circulated internationally via postcards and illustrated guides and lectures.

Illustrated with more than one hundred images, including many in color, An Eye for the Tropics is a nuanced evaluation of the aesthetics of the “tropicalizing images” and their effects on Jamaica and the Bahamas. Thompson describes how representations created to project an image to the outside world altered everyday life on the islands. Hoteliers imported tropical plants to make the islands look more like the images. Many prominent tourist-oriented spaces, including hotels and famous beaches, became off-limits to the islands’ black populations, who were encouraged to act like the disciplined, loyal colonial subjects depicted in the pictures.

Analyzing the work of specific photographers and artists who created tropical representations of Jamaica and the Bahamas between the 1880s and the 1930s, Thompson shows how their images differ from the English picturesque landscape tradition. Turning to the present, she examines how tropicalizing images are deconstructed in works by contemporary artists—including Christopher Cozier, David Bailey, and Irénée Shaw—at the same time that they remain a staple of postcolonial governments’ vigorous efforts to attract tourists.


An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography and Framing the Caribbean Landscape, which concentrates on Jamaica and the Bahamas, teases out the issues at stake in promotional representations of the islands in the popular medium of photography (from postcards to slide presentations) and underscores the connections between the visual marketing of the islands and the politics of race. . . . An Eye for the Tropics reveals some essential reflections upon the image-making machinery of tourism.” — Melanie Vandenbrouck-Przybylski, Art History

An Eye for the Tropics is a valuable contribution to Caribbean studies. In particular, it does an amiable job in alerting scholars to the problems inherent in regarding postcards and other photographic representations of the region as somehow truer, or more objective, than other historical documents.” — Carl Thompson, New West Indian Guide

“A wryly intelligent examination of the ways that postcard and poster depictions of the Caribbean have influenced and been influenced by the island’s tourist economies.” — Nicholas Laughlin, Antilles weblog of Caribbean Review of Books

“Although it frequently seems that the old adage holds true, and there are really no new ideas under the sun, only new writers (or something to that effect), An Eye for the Tropics reads as a maiden, thoroughly researched, and highly successful journey over previously unexplored territory.” — Melanie Archer, Caribbean Review of Books

“One of the first studies to critically interrogate the visual culture of the Caribbean through the lens of both popular art and fine art, it’s an important book that, no doubt, will continue to force the question of an distinct Caribbean art history, singular from a similarly contentious, African American chronicle, and impacted by the parallel histories of economic underdevelopment in the region and Western nostalgia for a present-day, accessible paradise.” — Richard J. Powell, Small Axe

“In An Eye for the Tropics, Krista A. Thompson’s guiding preoccupation is with the construction of the Anglo-Creole Caribbean within a colonial regime of visual and discursive representation. How, she asks, was the Caribbean framed within the ocular terms of a tropical paradise as a space of verdant, quasi-primitive desire? The story she tells to answer this question is at once historically detailed and theoretically acute.” — David Scott, author of Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment

“Krista A. Thompson masterfully uses early-twentieth-century postcards to show how social, political, and racial issues are embedded in postcard imagery, while simultaneously analyzing current collecting practices. She makes substantial new and intriguing contributions to the understanding not simply of the historical tropicalization of the islands but of the persistence of such propagandistic attitudes in the economic survival of the islands today.” — Judith Bettelheim, Professor of Art and Art History, San Francisco State University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Krista A. Thompson is Assistant Professor of Art History and African American Studies at Northwestern University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations ix

Abbreviations xiii

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction: Tropicalization: The Aesthetics and Politics of Space in Jamaica and the Bahamas 1

1. Framing “The New Jamaica”: Feasting on the Picturesque Tropical Landscape 27

2. Developing the Tropics: The Politics of the Picturesque in the Bahamas 92

3. Through the Looking Glass: Visualizing the Sea as Icon of the Bahamas 156

4. Diving into the Racial Waters of Beach Space in Jamaica: Tropical Modernity and the Myrtle Bank Hotel’s Pool 204

5. “I Am Rendered Speechless by Your Idea of Beauty”: The Picturesque in History and Art in the Postcolony 252

Epilogue: Tropical Futures: Civilizing Citizens and Uncivilizing Tourists 297

Notes 307

References 331

Illustration Credits 349

Index 355
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Krista Thompson is the winner of the 2009 David C. Driskell Award, presented by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3764-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3751-5
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