‘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.
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.
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.