Photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON
When you think about it, you don’t often get a chance to photograph master craftsmen at work. And I’m talking about real crafts here – blacksmiths, farriers, coopers, scribes, shearers, drovers and the like. So when I saw this blacksmith working silently but industriously at Huntsville, Ontario, I simply had to get out not one camera but two.
He was hard at work in the Muskoka Pioneer Village when I shot these images in late 2005. The light outdoors was dull and inside his timber hut, things were even murkier. But that suited me right down to the ground. I was trying to capture reality here, so it was quite fitting that there was no electric light dominating the scene.
Transfixed, I watched him at work for several minutes, even though I had a full schedule for the day. At this point, I faced an interesting dilemma. As a naturally friendly person, I generally greet a stranger. More to the point, before I photograph anyone, I make it a point of asking, simply because some people (understandably) find it intrusive to be photographed by someone they don’t know.
But I somehow thought that if I’d gone into the hut and introduced myself, it could perhaps have compromised the quality of what I was trying to capture on film. And when I say "on film", I mean on film, because these images were shot on a Canon EOS 3000 using a film spool. You see, I wanted to shoot a photo essay that was "from the outside, looking in".
I didn’t want anything to look as if it were rehearsed. And in a strange sort of way that approach made it slightly more difficult for me. Had I been by the man’s elbow and had I engaged him in conversation, I would have asked him exactly what he was doing and what procedure he was going to use next. I would have, therefore, been prepared for his every move.
But because I had no idea what he was going to do next, I was unprepared for every move he made. I watched him take a few short steps across to an implement that I had never seen in real life. As he reached over to grasp it, the penny dropped and I realised he was about to use an old-fashioned bellows.
One pump with his arm forced air into the flames, just as I put my camera to my eye. I caught not the full flare of the flame, but I hit the shutter just before the oxygen-fed fire licked back down to normal size.
I had a Pentax Option digital with me too, and I captured a few scenes with that marvelous little camera. I watched as the unknown blacksmith used long tongs to heat a short piece of metal until it glowed orange-red. Then he turned his attention to the metal, not pounding it into shape with a sledgehammer, but tempering it with short strokes calculated to encourage the heated molecules to take on a slightly different shape.
Later, when I checked the photographs on my computer, I must admit I felt a twinge of disappointment. Just a slight twinge, mind you. I felt I hadn’t quite adjusted the aperture and the speed to the best settings. I felt I had sacrificed clarity as well as crispness of each image. Silently, I chided myself for not having experimented with different settings on the Canon while the blacksmith put his ancient art on display to an audience of just one person.
But much later, when I thought about the photo essay in the exact context of what I strove to capture, I began to see that I had captured the images to faithfully reflect what I was privileged to see that day. I had set out to capture reality – and I think that is pretty much what I achieved.
or the home of ABC Wednesday, go to Mrs Nesbitt's Place.