The National Gallery of Jamaica received the sad news of the passing of celebrated photojournalist and portrait photographer Maria LaYacona on Sunday April 28, 2019.
Born on November 18, 1926 in Cleveland Ohio to Italian parents, LaYacona first studied photography with her father Mario LaYacona and later trained at the Winona School of Photography in Warsaw Indiana. She went on to work as a photojournalist for LIFE magazine and travelled around the world documenting life in the 1950s for the magazine. She first came to Jamaica in 1955 while on an assignment for LIFE magazine to photograph Australian Cricket team’s first match –and also the first night game – at Sabina Park. She fell in love with the island and in her own words “felt she had a tremendous future here” and made Jamaica her home until her passing.
She was the official photographer for the National Dance Theatre Company from its inception in 1962 until 1992. From that association, the books Roots and Rhythms and Renewal and Continuity – The National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica – 1962–2008 were developed with both books benefitting from the extensive visual repertoire she had developed for the NDTC over the years.
Though known primarily for her beautifully lit black and white photography, she was also a founding member of the Colour Photographic Club of Jamaica in 1964 which became one of the leading promoters and innovators of the art form in the island. With her black and white photography however, she felt that without the distractions of colour, the beauty of her subjects was more evident to her audience. LaYacona made quite an impact as a commercial photographer. She was one of the early advocates for the use of Jamaican models in local advertising campaigns for such companies as Berger Paints, Milo and Captain Morgan’s Rum, which led to increased local success for these companies.
Video courtesy of Frame By Frame Productions
Her commercial work led to portraits and she was known for her sensitive and engaging portraiture which she felt “showed the identities and personalities of her subjects.” She was the professional portraitist for many of Jamaica’s Prime Ministers including Alexander Bustamante, Norman Manley and Edward Seaga; her portrait of Prime Minister Michael Manley was also used for the One Thousand Dollar bill. LaYacona also photographed many of Jamaica’s visual artists including David Pottinger, Mallica Kapo Reynolds and Edna Manley and major cultural figures such as Sir Phillip Sherlock, Millie Small and Paul Campbell, but it was her photographs depicting everyday Jamaicans: fishermen, vendors and children that proved to be her most iconic.
Her first major exhibition – which featured photographs of the National Dance Theatre Company – was held at Devon House 1972, the same year that she was awarded the Silver Musgrave Award. Her second major exhibition, a survey of Jamaican portraits, was held at the National Gallery of Jamaica in 1993 (LaYacona would later serve on the National Gallery’s Board of Directors from 1998 to 2004). Her long career of capturing images also led to the production of two collections of her photography Jamaican Portraits and Jamaica Reverie which showcased her enduring passion for the people of Jamaica and its landscape.
The Board of Directors and the staff of the National Gallery of Jamaica wish to extend their sincere condolences to the family, friends and caregivers of Maria LaYacona.