There surely isn’t a figure in English folklore, poetry or literature more sympathetically drawn than that of the blacksmith. From ancient tales and popular mythology to the poetry of Longfellow and the pen of Dickens, the Blacksmith is a straightforward, kindly, honourable man toiling at an honest profession. In our mind’s eye we see him dressed in a leather apron bent over the anvil with a mighty hammer in his hand, the flames of the forge lighting the darkness of his workplace. In times past he was often regarded as the king of craftsmen because he was the man who made the tools used by all the other artisans. He was, in short, indispensable which was why there was a Blacksmith plying his trade in every village in England.
Those days are, of course, long gone. Yet the ancient craft has never totally withered away. In fact it has actually undergone a bit of a revival over the last twenty years or so. The modern blacksmith has needed to be adaptable in the face of uncertain and unpromising times. While remaining an accomplished exponent of his craft he now must also have the eye of an artist, the skill of a draughtsman, and the business sense of a professional.
I recently finished photographing Steve Rook who, as an artist blacksmith running his own forge, amply demonstrates all these qualities. He uses traditional and modern methods and tools, working largely with mild steel to create beautifully crafted pieces. During the period of my visits to the workshop Steve and his able apprentice, Callum Dingwall, were making an oak themed gate for a private commission. I was struck how in the hands of a skilful blacksmith unpromising chunks and lengths of steel could be coaxed, fashioned and stressed with precision hammer blows into lifelike expressions in metal. The constituent pieces of the gate became true representations of the natural form and spirit of the tree.
The workshop, which is entered through a wooden door down a small flight of stone steps, has a functional subterranean intimacy about it. At the heart of its monochrome interior is the forge itself, while much of the wall space and places in between are taken by rows of tools lined up like a well stocked armoury. The fire and heat of the coal fired forge, the clatter of hammers on metal and the hum and thud of heavier machinery in a small way echo a bygone industrial age when things were fashioned by hand.
Despite the overhead sky lights, windows towards the back of the work space, fluorescent tubes and the flames of the forge the levels of light were quite low making it a tricky environment to photograph in. The blacksmith though needs to be able to see the subtle change of colour and hue of the metal as the heat is applied.
The photographic challenges here of working in low light are ones which I am all too familiar with. The trick is to make the most of the contrast between the orange light of the flame and the subdued metal grey surroundings all the while maintaining the detail in the different textures and surfaces. Shapes too become very important as they symbolise the dextrous wielding of the tools and the sonorous distinctive clink of molten metal being transformed, for this is the alchemy of the blacksmith.