A Traditional Craft and How to Photograph It

It Was the Confident Skill of Craftsmanship And the Attention to Detail That Caught My Eye. All I Had to do Was Capture That in a Photograph

The wooden last is in effect the mold of the shoe. It is crafted by hand from a block of wood to exactly match the customer's foot. This man has been doing the job 30 years

‘If you want to know the measure of a man look at the shoes he wears’. This well known aphorism came to mind as I squeezed myself into a barely workable space to take some photographs in the basement workshop of one of the most celebrated shoemakers in the world. The shoes being worked on here in this rather modest, functional room are destined for the feet of the rich and famous all over the world. John Lobb of St. James Street enjoys the patronage of senior members of the British royal family, Hollywood superstars and even fictional characters such as James Bond (they make a cameo in the novels!) but owes its longevity to its skilled craftsman, attention to detail and impeccable customer service.

Founded in 1849 the company is one of the very few classic English shoemakers still in business. The traditional handmade shoes, of course, come at a price: a pair of black leather brogues starts at around £2,600, but to see a finished pair sitting in its sturdy purple box ready for dispatch is to behold a work of art. They just are a thing of great beauty: they exude quality and elegance, a vision of polished leather and pattern perfect stitching. Everything about them tells you they will serve their owner a very long time.

The wooden last is in effect the mold of the shoe. It is crafted by hand from a block of wood to exactly match the customer's foot. This man has been doing the job 30 years
The wooden last is in effect the mold of the shoe. It is crafted by hand from a block of wood to exactly match the customer's foot. This man has been doing the job 30 years

Although some of the work is done by contract craftsmen in their own homes or studios, much of it still goes on in the shop near Piccadilly, London. It was here that I came to take some photographs as part of a project I am doing on traditional British crafts.  From making the wooden last, which is fashioned by hand to match exactly the contours and shape of the customer’s foot, to the final polishing there are something like seven specific stages a handmade shoe must go through. I wanted an image that would visually describe one of these stages as well as convey the love, care and craftsmanship that goes into completing it.

Using a 'fudge wheel' which is preheated to level the stitches on the sole
Using a 'fudge wheel' which is preheated to level the stitches on the sole

So here I was in the basement where four ‘makers’ were working on joining the sole, made from the best English tanned leather, to the carefully crafted leather upper with great precision in alignment and stitching. My challenge though was to move around this cramped space without getting in the way, overcome the difficult lighting conditions and to find an angle that would avoid including all the general mess of the workshop which I knew would be so distracting in a photograph.

I decided to get in close in order to concentrate on the detailed work being applied to the shoe and at the same time establishing a pictorial intimacy with the craftsmen. I also wanted to maintain a sense of context, a hint of atmosphere, and so included enough detail to make the images more readable.

Tacking the leather upper into place before the sole is sewn onto the shoe
Tacking the leather upper into place before the sole is sewn onto the shoe


Comments

Nick said...

Thanks for reading my blog post. Please let me know what you think. English only please :)

Wilfred Paulsew said on

Hi Nick,
I do not remember subscribing to your mailing list….but how glad I am to receive the link to your new site. The content is what I love about photography; India and craftsmen among others.
Just a few words to express my appreciation for your sharing your feelings.
Thanks

phill gregson said on

Hi Nick,
Stumbled accross your article, fantastic work! Great to read! Please feel free to write one about my work!
Regards,
Phill Gregson,
Wheelwright

ed said on

Nick,

What a wonderful body of work you have on your website, I was totally enamoured with your images.
I have been a commercial photographer for 37 years and am about to trade in my safe Studio and venture out into the real world. I hope to travel to Nepal and India in 2013 to photograph the people and culture. Any advise, cautions, or warnings?

Ed

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Nick Fleming Behind the Lens

Photographing on the bathing ghats at Hardwar during the Kumbh Mela (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Photographing in Patthar Masjid, Srinagar, Kashmir (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Photographing while on the Armanath Yatra, Kashmir (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Portrait session with young sadhu during the Kumbh Mela in Hardwar (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Resting at Gaumukh, source of the Ganges (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Meeting and Greeting at Hola Mohalla in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Milan Bharti making a cup of tea, Varanasi (<a target="_blank" href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Near Jammu (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
First light by the Ganges in Varanasi (<a target="_blank" href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
On the path up to Gaumukh (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
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