Icons of Mustique: The Making of Michael Orso's Debut Photography Show

Updated: May 8, 2021




Background:


In September of 2020, I was invited by one of my closest friends to join him for two weeks at his home in Mustique - an extremely small, private, and exclusive island with less than 150 homes, just 10 miles off the coast of St. Vincent. I had never heard of the island but quickly learned that it has been the private getaway for many of the worlds most popular rockstars, celebrities, financiers, and royalty ever since Princess Margaret was first gifted a parcel of by Colin Tennant in 1960 and joined his wild vision for the development of the previously uninhabited island. Residents included the likes of Mick Jagger, (previously) David Bowie, Bryan Adams, and Tommy Hilfiger, in addition to the likes of Johnny Depp, Kate Moss, Paul McCartney, Jon Bon Jovi, and many others who have frequently spent holidays on the island.


Pre-Trip Prep:


I called my photo mentor, Austin Shafkowitz, before the trip and walked through where I was going and, of course, asked which of my many cameras should accompany me. I am always tempted to bring as many cameras as I can fit in a carry-on suitcase, often at the expense of my clothing. But Austin was very clear with me and said, "Michael, you're taking one camera, and that is it!"


Decisions...


As I continued to delve into the history of the island, though, the choice became ever more apparent. This is an island that was founded and inhabited by royals and rockstars - the type who frequently appeared on the cover of magazines throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. So, I thought to myself, what camera fits best with the ethos of this island and its history?


A Hasselblad 500 Series Camera


Created in 1957, just one year before Colin Tennant acquired the island of Mustique, the Hasselblad 500 series was debuted and quickly became the premiere camera of choice for professional photographers throughout the era. There was no doubt that this had to be the camera of choice for this trip.


So I packed my Hasselblad bag with the body, a Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2.8 CF T* lens, a Zeiss Planar 140mm f/4.0 CF T* lens, a sekonic light meter, an ND filter, and about 12 rolls of film - some Kodak Portra 160, Kodak Portra 400, and Kodak Ektacrome E100.


I let Austin know what choice I made, which he thought made sense, and before I left, he told me to focus on shooting anything EXCEPT portraits. He was proud of the progression I had made shooting portraits and thought it was time for me to start working on other types of photographs.


The night before I left, I delved into some of the philosophy Austin had been pushing me to read that related to art - namely in topics such as critical theory and deconstruction. Specifically, I watched the entire Yale Theory of Literature (ENGL 300) course taught by Professor Paul Fry on YouTube, as well as read essays by a variety of authors such as Derrida and Saussure. The learnings were dense and probably over my head, but left me feeling that I was ready to finally create something unique.


The next morning, I made my way to the airport ready for a journey...





The First Hours and The Project's Conception


After an early wake-up call and a long day of flying, our propeller plane shuttered onto the tiniest little runway strip I had ever seen in my life. While I wasn't nervous, I was sure that we were going to die.


But we made it.


At the time, Mustique had not had a single case of COVID, and was the first time since the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020, I would arrive anywhere (with proof of a negative PCR test) and not have to wear a mask or worry about who I hugged and for how long. Luigi was waiting in a golf cart at the tiny airport as my friend and I stepped off the plane. After pretending our COVID tests weren't valid, Dr. Michael chuckled and let us through the gates of the airport and Luigi quickly shuttled us over to the beachfront at Mustique's only hotel - The Cotton House - where a lunch buffet was prepared for us and a few of the other residents. There were about 10 of us in total, all hanging out at the table, and I quickly learned that everyone on Mustique felt completely natural and at ease. Even though everybody was somebody, nobody felt the need to pretend or veil themselves from the truth that lies in the marrow of their bones. If you were in, you were in. And I was instantly welcomed like family.


Within the first hour, I met a lovely, young, married couple who was sitting adjacent to me. It turned out to be the brilliant sculptor and former manager of Skrillex, Steve Hash - a lean cigarette smokin', cowboy hat wearin', long black-haired, scruffy-bearded icon that looks like the true Easy Rider. Next to him was his wife Ally Hilfiger - the small, animated, sarcastic, little energizer bunny of joy who is as smart and talented an artist as her husband, and the daughter of iconic fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger. While I had no idea who they were, and nor did I care, Ally and I hit it off instantly. We shared our stories, our art, our ideas, our fears, and beyond. We were the same personality type - 7 enneagram - and together we could go on for hours. By the end of our zigzagging rambling, which could've set a healthy person into an epileptic shock, she said to me, "I've really been wanted to shoot this portrait series down here on the island. Like Patrick Lichfield use to. He would photograph all the residents and make a book out of it. They haven't done one in so long and I think it would be just so fantastic to capture the personalities from this new era of Mustique."


A portrait project... Oh boy...


I could hear Austin's words buzzing through my ears like an angry little angel, but I couldn't help myself. I was in. All the way in.


Later that evening, we all met at Basil's Bar - the only bar on Mustique, which was created by Basil Charles, or the so-called King of Mustique. Basil has been present on the island since its earliest days, and has seen and intimately met all of its residents and visitors. As we hung out, drank cocktails, smoked cigarettes, and shared stories, we spent time with a number of other island residents, including Basil, but most importantly, Gabija Mitchell - the tall, flawless, sheek, intimidating, yet lovely DJ, artist, and daughter of the former 16-year Prime Minister of St. Vincent, Sir. James Fitz-Allen Mitchell. It quickly became obvious that she was the princess of the island, having spent her childhood between Mustique and St. Vincent, and was one of the few natives who crossed between the island's elite residents and the people who worked on the island, the majority of whom come from St. Vincent. With her intimate knowledge of the island and its inhabitants, her immaculate attention to detail, and her close relationship with Ally, it became obvious that she needed to be part of our team.





Shooting the Portraits:


Over the course of the next two weeks, the three of us hustled to shoot as many portraits as we could. The portraits ranged from an island cook to an island poet to an island explorer and beyond. Without giving away too much personal information, the shoot environments ranged from extremely casual to 8am shots vodka shots, and everything in between.


Halfway through the week, I accompanied my friend on a sunset paddleboard ride with Bryan Adams from his spectacular home, which sits right on the beach at the very point of Mustique that separates the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. We paddle-boarded from his house to Basil's Bar. While I had never paddle-boarded before, I am a skateboarder and got the hang of it after a few embarrassing spills. As we sat on the beach after our seemingly surreal voyage off into the deep purples and reds of sunset, I talked to Bryan about photography, as he is quite the accomplished photographer. When I told him I was shooting on a Hasselblad, his first question was, "Does it have a digital back?"

"No." I replied, not wanting to say that the equipment's $20,000+ cost was a little thick for me at the moment.

"Does it have autofocus?" He quickly followed up with.

"No." I stated.

After a beat, I added, "Also all I have left is slide film."

"Why are you making it so hard for yourself?" He responded before heading over to load up the car and head back.


I sat there for a long minute thinking, and simply said out loud to myself, "Because sometimes the hard way is the right way."





Never Stop Shooting:

Over the next week, we continued shooting until we had finished every roll of film that I had brought with me.


I was lucky enough to shoot Basil and a number of other island legends, and after every session, I couldn't believe that I got the opportunity to become a small part of Mustique history alongside other legendary photographers who captured the island and its residents like Patrick Lichfield and Slim Aarons.


Of course, before wrapping the trip, Ally and I had to shoot portraits of the two people who made this project possible: Luigi and Gabija. With a roll of B&W film that a friend had handy - Ilford HP5 ISO 50 - we shot both portraits on the beach - Gabija's at the beach by Basil's Bar, and Luigi's on the deserted beach of Black Sand Bay.



The Island Explorer - 18"x18" Archival Pigment Print on Epson UltraSmooth FineArt Paper - SOLD OUT

Wrapping:

When it was all said and done, though, I realized I hadn't shot a single picture that wasn't a portrait. So after getting back to the house, I scoured my camera bag, my room, and my clothing, and somehow found a single roll of E100 hidden in my jacket pocket. I spent the next day shooting half of that roll and came away with a few images, but the one specific photograph that stood out was the photo of the vibrant red and white cargo boat that is responsible for transporting all of the food and goods from St. Vincent to Mustique. If not for this boat, Mustique wouldn't be able to survive, and in retrospect, had I not captured the portrait of this important vessel, I would not have been able to comfortably link this series to the cause that will benefit from the sale of these images.





The End of the Trip


After a couple more glorious nights of Mustique memories that will forever rest beneath the sands of Pasture Bay, a hike up the Soufriere Volcano in St. Vincent, a day-long quest through the rocks and hills and mangrove forests of Mustique, and watching in awe as about a dozen shooting stars lit up the sky, it finally came time for our little crew to say our goodbyes. As we boarded the plane, I shot the remaining six frames of E100 of the residents and workers, who, together, gave us a howling and hysterical goodbye from the rooftop of the airport. As I unloaded the roll and licked it shut, I realized that this island would be forever part of my blood and I would make it a point to return for many years to come.


Icons of Mustique: Michael Orso's Debut Photography Show Benefitting the Vincy Volcano Relief Fund


After returning to New York, I immediately developed the film and scanned the negatives to see how the photographs came out, and honestly, I was stunned. The photos embodied the same rawness and ephemerality of photos I had shot in the past, but these pictures had such a distinct visual style and ethos embedded into them. It felt like we were able to truly capture the judgment-less freedom and essence of each individual that can only be captured in an island as private yet tight-knit as Mustique. I was proud, and after showing Austin the tests, so was he.


Over the following weeks and months, I got each image wet drum scanned (the highest quality film scan available) at 8,000 DPI, and crashed my computer at least a dozen times editing and re-editing them. After sharing the photographs with Ally, and shimmying in their beauty, we realized that we had no idea what we wanted to do with them. We didn't have nearly enough images to produce a Mustique book. The reality set in that such an undertaking would take at least a few more trips during the busy season. So, we ended up shelving the project.


Almost seven months later, on April 9th, 2021, we first learned of the violent eruption of La Soufriere - the very volcano we climbed in St. Vincent. The volcano hadn't erupted since 1979, and now, more than 40-years later, over 20,000 residents had to be evacuated from the Island as a result of what has been the largest recorded explosion of La Soufriere in modern history. Not only have residents had to evacuate, but the ash and ensuing mudslides have destroyed homes, the majority of the island's farmland and vegetation, schools, and more. Many Vincys are not without clean water, and experts say it could cause a 50% decrease in the island's GDP for 2021.





Gabija immediately sprang into action and started an emergency relief effort called The Vincy Volcano Relief Fund where she has raised more than $15,000 to provide emergency relief to St. Vincent and its people, including fresh clothing and mattresses, as well as necessities to aid children physiologically: books, writing materials, toys, and more. She has actively posted about her efforts and progress on her instagram page.


Ally, Luigi, and I knew that this was the time to take action. In response, Luigi connected us with Oliver Zabar, another Mustique island resident who recently opened a photo gallery in Soho called the Available Gallery. We asked him about doing a show with a select number of the Mustique portraits to benefit Gabija's relief fund. He immediately came on board and offered up space to display eight of the framed portraits and gave us the opportunity to host an opening night for the show, which will be in just a couple of weeks on May 22nd, 2021.


Ultimately, our goal is the use these images to raise between $2,500 and $5,000 for Gabija's relief effort. So far we have sold more than half the images before the show has even opened, but we want to sell this thing out. And I believe we will, with your help.


If you are feeling generous and you feel connected to the photographs, please feel free to purchase one of the limited edition prints and frames here.


As always, thank you for reading, and for anyone who contributes, we would love to see you at the show.


-Michael




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