Retrospective 43 years of photojournalism from the veteran, Sunmi Smart-Cole
Across genres and diverse themes, veteran photojournalist, Mr. Sunmi Smart-Cole’s retrospective of 43 years exposes his strength in documentary and social commentary photography. Shown as Sunmi’s Lens from December 1-14, 2019, at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos, the exhibition, displayed in monochrome renditions, exudes Smart-Cole’s trajectory in analogue and digital photography. Quite a number of celebrity portraits taken, either in the past decade or much longer, also strengthens the retrospective show. Accompanied with a book launch of the same title, the exhibits included six works from the photographer’s son, Tobi Magnus Smart-Cole.
Perhaps, a visit to the gallery on this quiet morning gives one a better view of the photographer’s works. As one steps into the entrance of the exhibition space at Terra Kulture, a few days after the opening, walls full of photographs, with some spilling onto the floor, suggest so much to share from the exhibited photographer’s collections. In fact, the curatorial choice of the exhibition shows that quite a number of photographs shares the floor with memorabilia such as magazines and newspapers, among others.
Smart-Cole, 78, is, no doubt, a revered professional in Nigeria’s lexicon of photojournalism. A number of his professional trails that earned him embossed spot on the landscape of Nigerian photography, in over 40 years, are not missing in this exhibition. From being privileged to have travelled widely, within and outside Nigeria, to his acquaintanceship with people in authority, the exhibition exposes how Smart-Cole’s lens enriched the photojournalism space in Nigeria. Apart from being positioned so close to document privileged elites of the society and events, Smart-Cole’s lens, as seen in quite a number of the exhibits, provides a rich lesson in photography across the periods of emulsion film or analogue and digital eras.
Like a distinct spot in clusters of icons, Smart-Cole’s picture taken with former U.S. President, Bill Clinton and a lady — the only colour display among the exhibits — generates a strong, perhaps, recent depth of history.
Surrounding the group colour picture are portraits of personalities across politics and culture, among seven others in black and white, including that of Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, and some monarchs. Among several other social commentary pictures, at the entrance of the gallery, are everyday people and events. Such include real time street captures of baby being strapped on her mother’s back and an old passenger bus built in lorry format, popularly known as bolakaje in the Southwest. The bolekaja memory of the 20th century decade always comes with the culture of poetic expressions written on the body of the vehicles then. For the Smart-Cole’s picture, the passenger bus, which reigned in the 1950s through 1980s, comes with inscriptions such as Olorun adaba and Ti oluwa ni yio se. With no specialised museums in sight to tell the history of Nigeria’s public transportation, pictures such as that of the old bolekaje bus on display at the exhibition will keep providing antiquity windows to the nation’s crucial past.
In the next room comes some conceptual works such as silhouette of a hand in what looks like a view from the darkroom, a skyline with dramatic depth of someone in meditation, and some perspective through indoor that overlooks like a stable. Interestingly, the picture of cattle taken from an indoor position exudes some lesson in depth of field photography, given the possibility of differential focuses of which the photographer manipulated to generate his composition.
In the same room come quite a number of portraits, among which are that of Lady Maiden Ibru, Yinka Davies, Bennedikter Molokwu, Ben Murray-Bruce, each dated 2007.Again a photographer whose lens oozes in conceptual imageries, particularly in the application of shade and key lighting techniques comes in the third room. From the interior of architecture, the photographer’s artistic play on light, perhaps from a low angle view, enhances the visual contents of the display. Also, a semi-silhouette of a lady against middle brightness, on both sides, as well as a dome taken from low angle view, add up to highlight the photographer’s dexterity in creative photography.
In both telephoto and wide-angle shots, he takes that dexterity to outdoor with captivating sceneries such as environmental ruins, mostly in rural areas. One of such pieces comes with a composition that captures opposite side of ruins of nature. It exposes the beauty of a shore where rested canoes overlook the quiet water against a hill on the other side of the island.
Also on celebrity photography, portraits of Olu Jacobs (2015) and Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde (2004), among others, also beam in semi-cameo lighting technique.Perhaps the most dramatic sets of pictures come on display at the extreme end of the gallery’s rooms. Such include cart pushers taking a break from work on stones-filled floor, telephoto shot of pond with father and daughter getting excitement from a duck, real time action of street soccer with youth players on bare feet, someone providing a helping hand to a feeble, old lady across a fragile plank on a street drainage, and a donkey with his owner, perhaps in faraway Middle East, among others.
From being a draughtsman to setting up barbing salon and ending up as photographer, Smart-Cole’s career has evolved, strictly through the creative fields.His background of passing through the elite class, perhaps, got him to be the photographer of former military Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida. In 1983, he became the first photo editor of The Guardian newspaper, and later editor of Lagos Life. He was appointed Managing Editor of The Guardian in 1988.
Whatever challenges Smart-Come has encountered in 40 years of his career, perhaps, wasn’t as disturbing as what happened two years ago in Lagos. Reports had it that the photographer was ‘assaulted’ by some overzealous security operatives during Bola Tinubu Colloquium in Lagos last year. Smart-Cole, after the widely condemned infractions by the security men, expressed shock that he had “never been beaten” in his entire life until that unfortunate incident. If a section of the country’s security operatives did not accord Smart-Cole his deserved spot in public place, those who cherish accomplishments thought differently. A Director of Photography at ThisDay, Smart-Cole added another feather to his numerous laurels a few days ago. On Monday, December 9, he was presented with ‘The Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Reporting’ 2019 at NECA House, Ikeja.
Smart-Cole had won several laurels as a photojournalist. His awards include 3rd Commonwealth Photography Exhibition in Hong Kong (1983), JADEAS TRUST award for creativity (2001), First TINAPA Movie Awards for “Achievement in Entertainment” (Golden Camera Award – 2007), VIVANTE award as ‘Champion of Nation Building’ – 2008 (category UniqueValue Innovators), and Photo-Journalists Association of Nigeria (PJAN) award (2008) for Inspirational Support.
Smart-Cole is of Nigerian-Sierra Leonean parentage.
No comments yet