IN THE ALCHEMIST'S CHAMBER

Working Hands And Loose Tongues

 French Polisher's Window (Outside) 

French Polisher's Window (Outside) 

I spent much of the winter with the uncomfortable feeling that I really should be adding to my series “Working Hands” since it is due to be exhibited at a small gallery in November, but having just moved to a new area it was a bit difficult to pick up the reins again.  I’ve moved from a small town to a big city and the kind of working hands you see in one are not like those you see in the other.

One morning however, when out on my travels, I happened upon a perfect little french polisher’s workshop in a small coastal town.  It wasn’t open but I hung around until a chap appeared and then made my pitch.  It’s amazing how amenable so many people are.  A total stranger, I walk into someone’s working life and simply ask if they would be willing to let me take some photographs.  No one has actually said no yet – though there has been an element of persuasion once or twice.  So I went back for a session with my french polisher, Dave. 

The Working Hands series is not without its technical difficulties.  Firstly, many of the subjects have a workshop little bigger than a cupboard and sometimes there is not much natural light.  They themselves can get in but the space left and the angle to shoot in leaves me more or less standing on my head in an area the size of a wardrobe.  Then there is the nature of the work.  You have a subject’s head and torso in one part of the frame usually bending over a piece of work in the opposite part of the frame with very little in the middle.  All of this requires some imagination on the hoof – but is that not what photography is all about, eh?  And the most difficult and delightful thing is that you usually get into a conversation about whatever their particular skill is.  I find it hard to talk and photograph at the same time, in the first place and in the second what they are saying is usually very interesting so I find myself forgetting the camera and chatting about my subject's skills and processes.

So it was with Dave the french polisher.  I had always thought that a french polisher, well, polished.  But in fact it is more that they are experts in wood finishes.  So they don’t spend all their time huffing back and forth with a large polishing cloth.  They restore finishes, rework surfaces, rejuvenate grains, revive stains and shades and remove blemishes.  They are the cosmetic surgeons of wood.

I found all this out when I put my camera down and chatted to Dave.  Naturally enough every polisher has a cocktail cabinet of secret potions handed down in the family (Dave learned his trade from his father) and Dave showed me around his – though obviously if I were to reveal anything my life would be hanging by a slender thread.  He did tell me that he only uses two basic stains and simply dilutes them with turps to get the exact shade he wants.  I don’t know where that leaves the zillion or so choices that you get in the average diy store.  The picture below shows his mixing bowls.  Professional honesty requires me to reveal that I asked him to remove the baked bean tin as rather spoiling the overall aesthetic effect but in the end verisimilitude prevailed.  The picture cannot though do justice to the sensuousness of the mixing process, the heady aromas, the liquid trickle and slurp. I felt as if I were in an alchemist’s chamber.

 The Elixirs of Revival

The Elixirs of Revival

Technically speaking, putting the camera down is probably a bit of a mistake.  You get your eye in and then I personally find that if I break into that process my eye seems to go a bit cold and it takes a moment or two to get it back again.  But you chat and tea is offered and you chat a bit more and for me that is part of the pleasure of the whole process.  For what greater pleasure is there than a good conversation?

I'll put my chosen photograph of Dave up in the Working Hands series shortly.

(Tech tip.  If you have one of those annoying white stains on a polished wooden surface you can remove it by wiping it with white spirit and then applying a match.  Poof!  A wisp of smoke and it is gone.  Obviously, amounts are crucial here otherwise, poof! and  your furniture's on fire.  Hmmm... maybe best left to an expert after all.)

 French Polisher's Window (Inside)

French Polisher's Window (Inside)

(All photographs my own)