Photographing a Boston Woodshop
Tell me this doesn’t sound cool.
Navigating the twisty turns of a coastal road, watching the edge lest your car drop off into the ocean, you arrive in a tiny windswept town. Somewhere before the town center, you begin to slow down, searching for the house your GPS can’t quite find, looking for a mailbox, a porch with numbers, anything. It should be right here. You hang a left down a dirt alley, and emerge in the rear of…a…church?
Well, yes, but not a church anymore. The structure remains, but what is happening here in place of a Sunday service is a different kind of reverence, no less sincere but more…well…loud. Instead of incense, the scent is of warm wood, linseed oil and sawdust. And the celestial hum is more of a buzz, coming from the biggest saw I’ve ever seen in someone’s backyard. And logs are everywhere.
Alyssa Pitman and Winston Daddario of Spire Woodshop
This is Spire Woodshop, the creative space and collaboration of Alyssa Pitman and Winston Daddario, who create everything from spoons to the table to place them on. Alyssa and Winston have a strong vision for their work – beautiful, finely executed, highly functional objects made from wood that otherwise might have been wasted. Alyssa says: “Most of our products are created from locally sourced urban lumber, trees that are already being cut down or would have otherwise been discarded. We are interested in not only giving trees a second life but also telling a story of the community we live in through the furniture and goods that we create.”
Often an artisanal woodshop will be limited by size, since it can be hard to procure and process large trees on your own. But Alyssa and Winston have turned their backyard into a small lumber mill that can handle just about anything that comes to them – on this particular day, a large fallen birch tree with a trunk as wide as my arm’s length is lying next to the saw, wood red from the rain, its potential re-newed for having been salvaged by Alyssa as she headed back from a camping trip in Maine. I’d love to see that thing go through the mill.
I’m here for a different reason though, and that is to create an editorial photography spread of Alyssa carving a spoon for Place…in the Making magazine. I have no idea what I am getting into, my personal knowledge of carving is limited to thinking I knew how to do it when I was a kid and nearly slicing my thumb off with a steak knife. But I’ve always been a lover of wooden objects, so I’m excited.
Alyssa starts the process in the yard with a moist log about the size of a low stool and a sharp hatchet. First, she peels the bark off as easily as if it were a can label. (I’m already riveted.) By looking at the rings on the cut side and the knots on the peeled side, she can see things about the way the tree grew and makes informed decisions about the best place to make cuts – working with the grain, the unique growth aspects of this log and the structural strengths of certain areas above others. Quickly she decides on the ideal spot to create her first ‘blank’ – the roughly cut block the spoon will be carved from – and dives in.
I am immediately stunned by the extent and precision of the hatchet work. Alyssa does so much more than rough cutting and broad shaping with her tool, which is far far sharper than I ever expected it to be. Yes, it ‘hacks’, but in Alyssa’s capable hands it also cuts, and peels, and planes, and chips, and smooths. In almost no time, the rough block is a remarkably refined spoon. Astounding.
After a period of time and level of detail that I never expected from a hatchet is achieved, more exacting tools show up – a carving knife that is familiar in shape, and one that looks as if it was bent around a soda can. Both are used with very specific hand and body positions designed to increase accuracy and limit injury. (Where was this info when I was creating havoc with that steak knife?) Here again, Alyssa makes it look easy – her hand strength and tension causes long and even chips of planed wood to drop from the handle and bowl with elegance. I am reminded of the idea that sculpture is removing whatever doesn’t look like the thing you are trying to make. That’s definitely the case here – with every stroke of the knife, non-spoon disappears and spoon remains.
Soon, its time to head into the shop for sanding and waxing. This is another treat. We pass through spectacularly heavy red wooden doors with windows made from old ship portholes – Winston’s work – into the basement of the church where tables and smaller saws and a whole array of tools greet us. So does Billy, the precocious Siberian Husky.
Alyssa begins to sand the spoon using progressively finer grain sandpaper, re-moistening the wood as she goes. When she reaches a certain point, it is time to wax it and let it sit for 24-48 hours. So we wander over to an old crock pot on a side table. The 1980’s straw yellow color of the pot matches its contents almost perfectly, a molten mixture of linseed oil and beeswax. It smells divine, and makes the wood’s color bloom, the little imperfections of the grain magically transformed into beautiful detail. The smooth spoon gets a generous coating of the stuff and is set aside to absorb. Long after I have gone home to process my photographs, Alyssa will slake off the wax, rub it down and add another coat or two. There are finished spoons on the table, each wonderfully weighted and a pleasure to hold. Totally satisfying.
The entire process seems to have flown by. I could watch this process for days and never tire of it, and I haven’t even seen Winston work. I’d also like to do some serious inspecting of the giant raw planks of wood against the wall that look like they are well on their way to becoming a table. But I have to leave everyone here to their work and go do mine. I’m determined to take one of their carving classes soon though, and try to redeem myself from my youthful ignorance. I will never make the wood chips fly like Alyssa, but after watching her work, I’m inspired to give carving a try.
Spire Woodshop is located in Rockport, MA. You can find them at www.spirewoodshop.com, or follow them on Instagram @spirewoodshop.
This is the first in a series of posts dedicated to the editorial and portrait photography I did for PLACE in the Making magazine, a maker’s journal based in New England. In the magazine, we created business profiles of our artisans – and I had a blast getting to know everyone, going on-location to photograph their process, their people, and of course, the amazing things they make. Enjoy!
I walk along the woodland path, and the cedars close in around my footsteps. I feel a gentle breeze, hear the bushy treetops whisper in return, and see the bright blue green of the lake just on the other side of their rusty red trunks. The path turns out of sight ahead, but I know where it is going. I don’t have to think. I can just move, and find my destination effortlessly. This trail is home.
Ah, I can head there at any moment in my mind. I bet that you also have a place that you know so well that you can close your eyes (right now!) and see every detail as clearly as if you were there. Maybe it’s your hometown, or your school campus, or the way to a cherished vacation spot. Some places leave a permanent map in your heart so that you can always return to them. It’s a wonderful, powerful part of a life story – our sense of place.
Jennifer Carland definitely believes in the power of place. Her business, Carland Cartography, takes the places our hearts know well and celebrates them visually by creating a map. More than just a charting of location, her artwork bubbles over with emotion and energy, a sense of spiritual place as much as physical place. In her pieces of art, a map changes from a tool to a story. In her words, “We aren’t just selling art prints – we are providing personalized biographies to each one of our customers. We are invoking nostalgia, giving individuals a sense of belonging and an expression of self-identity. We are creating an illustrated reminder of the location each person calls “home”, the place where they fell in love, the area where they went to college, where they spent their summer holiday.” A fine artist with a background in urban planning, Jennifer brings a specialized understanding of place to her work. Her work was absolutely perfect for PLACE…In the Making magazine.
I got to visit Jennifer at her space in the Western Avenue Studios in Lowell, MA to photograph her portrait and take some candid working pictures for her feature in PLACE…In the Making. We sat in her cozy studio and talked a bit about how she brings her pieces to life.
Jennifer’s creative technique is unusual and multi-layered. She will render her map of an area in a number of different 2-D techniques featuring various types of media. Eventually those individual renderings will be layered, creating a unique blend of colors, lines and textures. (Her color choices often reflect the area she is representing – cherry blossoms of pink for Washington DC, or the Charles River in all its Fall glory.) This time consuming technique can take a while from start to finish – sometimes even up to 10 weeks! – but the result is always worth it. The final prints are stunning, and grace homes, offices and building lobbies all over the country.
Carland believes that “There is a psychological connection between personal identity and location. People love to talk about where they grew up, where they have lived, where they have visited and where they want to go to next.” Having a visual reminder of one’s journey so beautifully created by Carland is a treasure for the soul.
It was last Summer when my friend and photography client Sandra from Sweetgum Textiles and I met over a quick lunch to chat about photography, design, life, family, business, everything, as we often do. Sandra is an architect and a designer, and I honestly don’t think she’s ever created something I didn’t like. Natural toned with a lovely sophistication and beautiful, organic lines, her work is distinctively hers and just so exceptional. Plus, she’s pretty cool. Also smart.
Ok. Anyway. Sandra had this fun idea of creating a reader’s journal/magazine/catalogue with fantastic photography exploring the connection between our home here in New England and the things New England artists and artisans make, with fantastic and cool things for sale just in time for the holidays.
As an editorial portrait photographer, and as a business photographer who also specializes in creating visual profiles of creative businesses, you can imagine how excited this made me. Read: VERY. It’s pretty hard not to be inspired by the New England coast, and Sandra’s own company is a perfect example of this, since her textiles patterns are directly inspired by the plants and animals that surround us every day here in Massachusetts. What a cool idea. And so, PLACE…in the Making was born!
Sandra’s own business connections drove the finding of the first issue’s contributors – a found source woodshop in an old Rockport church (with a sawmill in the backyard). Enamel and woodcut artists with pieces that look as if they just came from the ocean’s heart. Yarn makers, soap makers, chocolatiers, potters, printers. Writings from architects and artists. Still life photography and images from the field.
The team behind the journal was vast, and the artisans we created portraits of are fascinating – I’m excited to share some of these creators and their businesses in a series of posts starting next week. For now, here are four lifestyle, detail and branding images from the publication – enjoy!
I just bought some new notecards that I am going to use for the holidays. They are from Sapling Press:
Sapling Press on Etsy – bringing real to the table. Thanks.
It’s funny because it’s true.
Okay, maybe not literally true (unless your Mom is currently sabotaging your business feed with questions about Sunday dinner and Why Aren’t You Married Yet, in which case…wow dude, sorry.)
I mean true in the sense that it can be really hard to curate your marketing – social media, website, blog, emailers, events, correspondence – to conform to your brand strategy. Sure, not everyone cares about a high level of brand coherence, and in some cases it isn’t really necessary – not every business is well-served with a extended presence. But more and more businesses of all types are embracing multiple methods to inform customers, build familiarity and gain trust. This comes with challenges, like making sure your content is published regularly, for example, or dealing with things that might not fall under your brand umbrella but still end up associated with you…like a comment from your Mom.
What’s important to remember is the difference between coherence and consistency. Coherence means you have a set of ideals that drives the heart of your product and is expressed by aligning your storytelling, your visuals, your consumer experience, your events – everything that makes your company what it is – along those ideals. Consistency is a lesser animal in this case, it means keeping things the same, instead of embracing change with your strong, well-defined outlook.
When your business has coherence instead of consistency, it is structured – which allows you to determine what fits with your brand strategy and what doesn’t. With a strong foundation to move from, you have the power to take action in any situation, confident that you have done so in a manner that makes sense to the people who know, like and trust your business. Instead of a monolithic, stagnant business, you are a living, breathing, responsive entity that believes in its mission, and shows it through coherent, well-branded content.
With that kind of reliable structure, you can handle pretty much anything that comes your way without missing a beat. And maybe even make those Mom comments an asset instead of a liability.
I love the seasons with a passion that only a New Englander can have – since we get all four in spades. And I love them as a photographer too. Each holds some unique and challenging photo opportunity, both from a technical standpoint and an emotional one. And while most shoots are dictated by when the final product is needed, it is so lovely to occasionally be able to say “Let’s wait until Fall”, my go-to season for drama and beauty.
Its perfect timing right around now, when the leaves are at their peak, because I start to get a little photographically antsy anyway. All that beauty is too hard to resist – so much color, and the low angle, the warm light, the frost creeping ever closer, reminding me of the long stark days coming soon…
Oh, talk about that light. No longer the strong sunshine of Summer, but not yet the thin, cold, fragile light of Winter, the light is at a lower angle in the sky. It starts to fade earlier at night and show up later in the morning. There is a rich quality that is amplified by all the leaves still clinging to the trees, but instead of adding the green they held all summer long to my compositions, they add golds, reds, yellows, copper. Skin looks warm and healthy. The backgrounds are patchwork magic. It feels abundant and full of comfort.
I’m also a big believer in how the atmosphere of a shoot affects the outcome of the photo. There is a wildness to the Fall, the scale and suddenness of the changes, the uptick in wind, animals leaving, a sort of au revoir that causes us to make sure things do not go unsaid, that feelings building all summer long are revealed, and lifetime secrets told before the deepwinter freeze holds our hearts and minds still for months. Some of my most beautiful and intuitive images come from this time.
Sure, not all of my images have this sort of depth. But many do. And I consider myself fortunate when the opportunity arises, and we get to take magical pictures, meeting the season in all of its wonder and powerful change.