A photographic journey through time

The National Gallery Cayman Islands’ current exhibition, Now and Then, presents a surreal and sometime haunting look at the development of the Cayman Islands by blending photography from the past with Courtney Platt’s photography of today.  

A new exhibition at the National Gallery blends past and present Cayman in a series of one-of-a-kind photographs. Walking through the National Gallery’s Now and Then exhibition, which features 23 works by Courtney Platt, is a moving, and at times eerie, experience. The large format photographs depict scenes from the Cayman Islands, recognisable locations that have been altered to illustrate the passing of time.  

Working with archival photographs from the Cayman Islands National Archive and the Cayman Free Press Steinmetz Collection, photographer Courtney Platt has replicated and digitally merged the past and present to provide a window into this bygone era. Past and current landmarks, buildings, events and generations of people blend together in a surreal, and at times, haunting mixture of imagery such as Silver Thatch rope and turtles being loaded onto a ship in the middle of the bustling current-day dock and a ghostly schooner resting at anchor in Hog Sty Bay in front of tall modern office buildings.  

Gallery Director Natalie Urquhart first conceived of the exhibition two years ago after coming across Russian photographer Sergey Larenkov who had layered World War II images over modern day photos of Berlin, Prague and Vienna. The results were “chilling and moving at the same time” she remembers. Impressed by the original series, she approached Courtney Platt to discuss the possibility of creating such works within a Caymanian context and the photographer jumped at the challenge. 

Their initial meeting was followed by an intense research period with the National Archive staff to find suitable images from the 1930s to 1950s, within their vast collection of photographs. Given that much of the collection comprises small prints, one of the difficulties was securing images that had the quality needed for large reproduction.  

“Fortunately he National Archive has remarkable art reproduction equipment that allowed even the smallest photograph to be enlarged,” said Urquhart.  

Eight different collections were used in total including the well known C Bernard Lewis collection from 1938 and the even earlier Aarona Kohlman collection. 

During the search the team also came across The Steinmetz Collection in the Cayman Free Press archives, which features heavily in the exhibition. Joseph Janney Steinmetz was a world-renowned commercial photographer who visited the Cayman Islands in 1950 and took a series of photographs depicting life here.  

The next stage was for Platt to identify the exact locations from which the early images had been taken, which was often a challenge because many had changed beyond recognition. “Standing at the precise spot where Joseph Steinmetz had stood 52 years ago was a remarkable experience,” he said. “Still photos have always been about capturing a single moment in time. We say they are worth a thousand words, but often they are worth much more. Shear ‘gestalt’ has struck me repeatedly regarding the passage of time, the relevance of photography in recording history and the pros and cons of development. Much has been gained, much has been lost.”  

Ultimately the images in Now and Then illustrate the gigantic leap that we have taken as a society and the National Gallery team hopes that visitors will stop by and take a moment to reflect on the importance of preserving our past while embracing the future. “Our heritage is a free natural resource,” said sponsor and National Gallery Board Member Susan Olde. “It offers stability and pride and, in so doing, strength to each one of us as it ties young and old together. Now and Then helps each of us reminisce on what makes Cayman such a unique, wonderful and strong country.” 

Urquhart said that since opening in mid-October, the exhibition has generated a lot of public interest with a record weekend attendance. 

“These beautiful photographs create a ‘time travel’ effect which is both engaging and somewhat nostalgic,”she said. “Courtney has created a remarkable collection that everyone can relate to in some way. We are extremely grateful to Courtney for embracing this project and to the National Archive staff, the Cayman Free Press team, Denise Bodden at the National Trust, Cathy Church’s team and Bob Croft, and exhibition sponsor Susan Olde for all their support.” 


Now and Then runs until 11 December. For opening times or related programme information visit www.nationalgallery.org.ky.