Hands at Work was inspired by a 2004 art exhibit of Summer’s black-and-white photographs of hands. Her prints of muscled, weathered, skilled hands engaged in knitting, kneading dough, digging potatoes, and spinning wool suggested to me a passion for the kinds of work that have become rare for many Americans. These people were not only willing to labor with their hands; they were nourished by those acts. As I viewed the images, I wanted to know the stories behind them and to give voice to them. When I approached Summer about collaborating on a collection of portraits and profiles, she agreed enthusiastically.
We had no difficulty creating a list of a cross section of people who rely on their hands for their work in our small, rural community on Lopez Island in Northwest Washington, though we did venture beyond our home for a few profiles. Whenever we made the first call to ask people to participate, most were humble, doubting that their work, their stories, and their hands could be of any interest or importance. We followed up by sending a written description of the process, and when people agreed (and everyone we asked ultimately did), we scheduled an interview and photo session at their places of work.
We arrived with lights, cameras, black back-drops, notebooks, pens, and the gift of a jar of locally-made, soothing hand salve. As Summer set up equipment, I explained that our goal was to engage in this process of documenting their work like ballroom dancers, leading and following as gracefully as possible. At times, I helped Summer with photographing by moving lights or suggesting shots to illustrate the subjects’ words about their work. Often, Summer added her own questions to the interview as she viewed the work through her camera lens.
Most of the time it was graceful; every time it was fun. Like the day pictured here when we met with Irene Skyriver in her garden. “What comes to mind with the title?” I asked. “I’ve always thought of my hands as rototillers in the dirt,” Irene said, scooping out a shallow hole for the corn seedling she was planting. Summer squatted beside Irene, focusing her camera lens on Irene’s calloused hands. Click. Click.
“How would you describe yourself and the kind of work you do with your hands?” I asked, crouching in the dirt and balancing my notepad on my knee. Irene stayed focused on the task before her. “I’m not a studied gardener,” she said. “There are so many things I don’t know about gardening. I’ve never read one gardening book – it’s just not my style. Trial and error is.” My left hand slid across the page, scrawling as many of Irene’s words as possible.
Summer checked her camera screen while I asked Irene, “What do you like most about gardening?” “I love moving my body – the stretch to pick a berry or an apple is like natural yoga. If you’re aware, you notice when you need to move another direction.” Click, click. Scrawl, scrawl.
As we talked with and photographed people at work, their fervor for painting, weaving, fishing, cooking, quilting, sculpting, boat-building, puppeteering, and even car repair was palpable and exhilarating. All expressed gratitude for being watched and listened to as they went about the work that feeds their souls. We recognized how rare it is for any of us to spend that much time talking about our work.
The sessions typically lasted two hours. Then Summer and I each went to our home offices; Summer downloading photographs to her computer for editing, and me transcribing my hand-written notes to my computer. What followed were hours and hours of mostly solitary work shaping pictures into portraits and words into stories.
Sometimes one or both of us needed to do some follow-up – more photographs, more questions. When we felt the pieces were finished, we shared them with the interviewees for review and comment and revised until everyone was satisfied. Then we repeated the process with the next person on the list.
Book Pickup Day:
Preschool Holiday Bazaar: