Born in Haiti, Leslie Jean-Bart has been living in New York City since he arrived in the United States in 1967. After earning a master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University, Jean-Bart embarked on a photography career on staff at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Freelance assignments took him all over the world, as he shot for clients in Japan, Brazil, Iceland, Cyprus and Portugal. But family brought him home, and in 2009, he began caring for his mother, who was living with dementia. He began walking the Coney Island shore as a source of healing and inner peace, and from these meditations, a new series of work emerged, a study of the duality of life itself. Reality & Imagination, an ongoing photographic series, reveals itself in the reflections and shadows cast upon the ocean tides, becoming a metaphor for our journeys across the land where we have come ashore. Jean-Bart speaks with Crave about what he has discovered along the way.
Tell us about how you acquired your love for the ocean in Haiti.
Leslie Jean-Bart: The ocean can temporarily remove me from the physical world while transporting me to a space that is light and completely calm. That is something I became aware of at an extremely early age when my older brother and I started to swim in the ocean where, during the summer in Haiti, we would spend countless hours of absolute delight.
Expand on your inspiration to return to the ocean and photograph it in 2009.
In the early 2000, I was working on a series of collages made of Polaroid transfer, scratch board, and anything else I could lay my hands on (i.e., pastel stick, pen & ink) that fit my need at that moment. But two developments in the first decade of 2000 affected me greatly. First, my mother was diagnosed with dementia in 2004 and I became her sole caretaker. Second, Polaroid announced in 2008 that production of their film would stop. By then, my collage series was my stabilizing force and a refuge from being the sole caretaker of my mother. I gave myself then the vague assignment of coming up with a project where I would use a digital camera, but approach it completely as I did with film, and have the result look completely modern. This vague assignment also stemmed partially from noticing at the time that we seemed to have completely lost the ability to think that anything creative could be made in any other way but with extensive use of Photoshop.
The pressure of being the sole caretaker of my mother came to the point one day at the beginning of the summer of 2009 where I felt it was going beyond what I could bear. Later I realized that I instinctively flee her apartment and took the subway to Coney Island where I found myself walking on the beach. Something in the water and sand pulled my attention completely out of my foggy-heavy mental stage. I made a few images of what I saw with the camera I always carry. There began Reality & Imagination, my ongoing series of seven years where I photograph the tide and where I spend countless hours of absolute delight.
Please speak about the idea of Reality & Imagination as a metaphor for cultural duality.
I photograph the tide as visual metaphor to explore the dynamic interaction that takes place between cultures when one lives permanently in a foreign land.
The cultures automatically interact with each other in a way that is instantly fluid and turbulent, just as the sand and tide interact. It’s a constant movement in unison where each always retains its distinctive characteristics. This creates a duality that is always present even when invariably one or the other is passing at the very bottom of that motion. The images of each of the sections of ‘Reality & Imagination’ explore this cultural duality. The section “Silhouette/Shadow” gives an actual shape to the two cultures as silhouette & shadow, which are both entities that cannot exist without the presence of another.
In the evolution of Reality & Imagination during the winter months, I continue to explore and then give shape to the two cultures. There, I selectively combine single images from the series in a way that permits each of the combined images to keep its distinctive identity. In doing so, I sparingly use if necessary a number of items– scratch tools, pencil, and/or pen & ink—to unify the two images as a “single unit.”
How does this take form in your own life?
The series has permitted me to readily welcome what’s good from both (all cultures in fact) and to let go from each what does not serve me as a human being. It has facilitated me to see at times what’s not readily seen as well as to be at times more present in life. It has shown me that it is all an ongoing challenge.
All photos ©Leslie Jean-Bart
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.