The Challenge and Reward of Photographing Craftspeople

By

Carol Ventura

I enjoy photographing people, especially when they are making things. My goal is to document step-by-step processes and details with an eye for composition. I either buy a piece or commission one, returning several times to document the process, but first, I ask. I am fluent in Spanish, so getting permission was not a problem in Spanish speaking countries. In other countries, I point to my camera and look inquisitively in their direction. If they motion “no,” I move on.

Craftspeople often work very quickly with simple tools in poorly lit spaces, so it’s challenging to adjust the camera’s settings while trying to get the best angle while the item is being crafted.

I don’t like the harsh light of flash because it flattens the image so I play with the ISO, using the lowest one possible. Sometimes blur is good, other times not. I try to figure out the optimal depth of field and amount of motion by photographing, looking at the result, and then readjusting many times. Sometimes the piece is finished, or the artist loses patience right when I figure out the perfect combination of ISO, shutter, and f/stop. Sharing the pictures on the camera’s LCD screen usually makes them happy enough to let me take a few more pictures. I used to have prints locally made to give away, but now I just get email addresses and send image files and if any photos are published, I mail them a copy of the publication.

These photographs were taken during the March 2023 Tennessee Tech Art Tour class to Oaxaca, a Mexican city famous for its pre-Columbian ruins, colonial architecture, festivals, food, art, and crafts.

Photo 1 features the talented silversmith, Gil Enrique Gutiérrez García, melting silver. This shot effectively shows the setup. Gil pours the molten metal into the mold propped up in the foreground while his son, Christian, observes in the background. That’s how crafts are passed down around the world. We purchased several finely crafted earrings from Gil and his talented family.

Photo 2 is a close-up shot of Olegario Hernández Mendoza carving a type of gourd that grows on trees. It was raining but because his studio was dark, I asked if he could work in the doorway where the light was better. Olegario was happy to oblige, but his hands moved so quickly I had trouble figuring out the camera settings before he was done. We bought several of his wonderful gourds.

Unfortunately, I forgot to write down the names of the people in the next two photos.

The knife maker in Photo 3 is sharpening an exquisite letter opener I bought from Casa Aragon https://www.cuchillosaragon.com/.

I met the muralist in photo 4 while walking down the street. I didn’t expect the picture to turn out because I had no time to adjust the settings, he was in the shade, and the camera was pointing towards the sun – but look at the result! The local corn goddess on the wall appears to be looking at the artist as he is miraculously bathed in light. I would not have taken this shot in the good old film days, but digital photography lets me take thousands of photos without worrying about the cost. What freedom!

My web page at https://www.carolventura.com/ includes links to pages that feature artists around the world making things. I put them together to help promote their work – and it worked – because many benefited from the exposure. I stopped making web pages when social media became readily accessible. I still take lots of photographs, though, and enjoy sharing them online and in publications.