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Alchemy: the making of a lute
Blog post
Adrian | Club Member

One of the many rewarding things about this project, even though in the end it did not meet the standards for the ARPS, was the many things I learned during the process, and not just about what to do and what not to do in terms of photography!

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Perhaps the one that made the most impact on me at a personal level was the need to develop a relationship with the luthier whose work was the subject of this project. Indeed, quite apart from needing his willing co-operation, it was perhaps inevitable that spending so much time together in a small workshop would demand a close working relationship but it also required me, as a photographer, to be interested in him and his work so that he could be as relaxed and natural as possible in what was an inherently unnatural situation, where he had given me permission to take whatever images I liked without his having little if any control over the process.

In the event, it turned out that my experience some years ago of playing the guitar formed an important link between us, since I had a basic understanding of music, acoustics and playing a stringed instrument. It also gave me a genuine interest in the many insights he shared with me into the process of making a lute and his years of experience as a luthier. For example, I learned that he trained as a luthier (a maker of lutes, violins and guitars) in Newark, where there is a workshop that is the UK equivalent of the workshop in Cremona where Amati, Guarneri and Stradivarius learned their skills - who knew?


Club Member
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Through my contact with him, I also developed an interest in lute music, as a result of which I bought several CDs of Nigel North, a renowned lutenist, playing the music of John Dowland, an English Renaissance composer, lutenist, and singer. During the many hours I spent (over?!) processing the images I took, I usually had this music playing while I worked, giving  and added element of atmosphere to the project.

In reflecting on the project, I was reminded of a visit I made to a museum in Buffalo, Canada, several years ago where there was a wonderful display of images by Yousuf Karsh CC, RCA,FRPS, a famous Canadian photographer known for his portraits of notable individuals, including people like Mohammad Ali, John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway. Along with the images was an account by Karsh of his approach to getting famous people to relax and look natural before he took any images.

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Among the collection was a stunning image of Nelson Mandela, alongside which was a note explaining that Mandela could only find an hour in a busy schedule for the shoot, as opposed to the half-day that was Karsh’s usual practice. When he arrived, he had come to Karsh’s studio straight from a flight from South Africa, looking very tired. As the hour ticked away, Karsh became increasingly desperate to find a way to get Mandela to relax and look natural until, in the end, he decided to tell Mandela about a recent photo-shoot with the Pope, during which he had asked him how many people worked at the Vatican - after a pause for thought, the Pope replied “About 50%!”, at which Mandela broke into a lovely gentle smile, the decisive moment that Karsh caught! This is a long way of saying that, even with individual portraits, let alone projects that span a number of months, capturing good images is about much more than camera skills, important though these are.