A Portrait of a Violin Maker, and some reflections on shooting what I enjoy

On Thursday last week I spent half the day taking photos of a man who makes and restores violins. It was, to say the least, an enjoyable experience, but it also felt like a timely conclusion to some thoughts I’ve been having about the direction I want to take my professional photography.

I’m quite lucky in my work as a professional; I fairly often get to go places many photographers don’t. Just this week – as well as taking photos of the violin maker – I’ve been taking photos and directing a video for a carpet manufacturer in Kidderminster. I guess some people might not find this sort of thing that interesting, but I love it. Having access to photograph behind the scenes in places that make things feels like a privilege to me.

In fact, for a while now, I’ve quite strongly felt that it’s this is sort of photography that I want to pursue professionally. This issue is, I often get bogged down in chasing the pretty penny instead. As a professional, it’s quite easy just to say yes to every bit of work that comes your way – this is especially the case where motivations are a little blurred by also running a creative agency where the photography might be part of wider creative bit of work that’s worth more to the business as a whole.

That said, just recently I said no to someone. Not just anyone either, I said no to a regular client who I’ve worked with for the last three years photographing their clothing lines. This year, I just couldn’t work out a way that I could do the job without causing myself a whole load of unnecessary stress just to take photos that I don’t really enjoy taking – so I turned the work down. Actually, more specifically, I put them in touch with another local photographer who I know will do a better job than I’d have done anyway – and funnily enough – someone who enjoys product photography, and has made a career for himself out of pursuing and specialising in it.

All this made me think. If I’m saying no to this client, what would be my ideal alternative client look like? What would be the job I would do if I could do any job that would make me happy in place of this one? The answer was simple – it would be a job where I was documenting a someone making something that he or she cared about. This isn’t the first time I’ve come to this conclusion – I’ve made efforts in this direction before. Myself and another local photographer started showcasing this sort that work we shot together via collaborative we called ShootRewind. This is still ongoing – it’s the reason we got the job at the carpet manufacturer, and even the reason we started a project working with Morgan Motors earlier this year. Regardless, turning down this particular clothing client was still one of the first times I’ve turned down some work purely on the basis that it didn’t fit my ideals as a photographer. As such, I decided to spend the time I’d saved pursuing, or at least working toward shooting more of the type of work I really enjoy.

Without anything in the pipeline along these lines I decided to take things into my own hands. I know loads of companies who make things in the local area, but I wanted to photograph something really interesting. I soon remembered an event I’d photographed where one of the speakers was a local violin maker. A quick search on google, I found his details and emailed him asking if he wouldn’t mind me popping in and taking a few photos of him in action. I made it quite clear that I didn’t want any cash, but instead I was just looking to shoot something that fit the mould of the sort of work that I wanted to pursue. Something for the portfolio, was essentially how I sold it.

Funnily enough, it was whilst waiting for a reply that I had a call from the aforementioned carpet manufacturer. They were looking for a photographer and film maker to document some of the processes within their factory. I love it when this sort of thing happens – it was a hard decision turning down a regular client, but it was quickly beginning to feel like it was the right thing to do. If I’d taken on the clothing shoot, I probably wouldn’t have been able to fit the carpet shoot in, something that would have really frustrated me. Not long later, the violin maker also emailed back saying that he’d be more than happy for me to take some photos of him. With the carpet job being a paid bit of work, it took a little more time to seal the deal and book a date, so as it turned out I ended up shooting the violin maker first.

Meeting Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh

There’s always something different about shooting a personal (unpaid) project to a professional one. That said, I’ve lost all concept of what it’s like to shoot a personal project like this without applying some of the things I’ve learned from shooting professionally. On this occasion, I’d locked in the idea that I was going to shoot a man doing his craft – and even though I wasn’t charging for the work, I was going to treat this like a job. To a degree, I therefore turned up with the mentality that I was on some sort of professional assignment. That is to say, my intention was to capture him at work, and I hadn’t really considered any other possible outcome.

Now, regardless of this intention, when I turned up at the given address I was quickly and acutely aware that this was his house. I’m not sure what I expected, but if anything I thought I might be invited into some sort of dedicated business premises. Being invited into someone’s home – even one that has a rooms converted into a violin showroom and workshops – sets a slightly different tone to a shoot. To begin with, I still retained the same intentions, but quickly realised that this wasn’t going to play out quite as I’d expected.

Shooting one-on-one like this, in a home or work environment, it’s definitely important to spend some time chatting without the camera getting in the way. I like to be comfortable with my subjects, and I like them to be comfortable with me. So when Padraig asked me if I’d like a coffee and invited me into his kitchen, I left my camera on the counter in the showroom. I followed him upstairs to a little kitchen where there were a couple of stools and a radio that was quietly tuned into Radio 3 (I think). He sat on one of the stools, and I sat on the other. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but for one reason or another we got chatting about his life and his background, and subsequently mine too.

As an Irish man with at least a couple of years on me, we had a fairly different upbringing, though it quickly seemed that there were at least a few parallels when it came to relationships with significant people in our formative years. These parallels seemed to have resulted in us having quite a similar outlook on life that meant that we found common ground throughout a lot of the conversations we had. I’m not going to go into details, much of the subject matter was far too private for me to air on this blog – but to say it was one of those situations where I just felt comfortable in the company of another person would be an understatement… An hour and a half later, we decided we better set about actually taking some shots.

Having spent all this time listening to and chatting to Padraig in his kitchen, I decided I wanted the first shot of him to be there. I asked if he spent a lot of time in his kitchen, and he replied saying that it was indeed somewhere that he spent a good portion of his time listening to his radio – as such, it seemed remiss not to capture him there. I walked down stairs to get my camera, and as I did I had the first inclining that this wasn’t going to be the shoot I expected. I realised that I was less interested in taking photos of this man at work, and more interested in taking his portrait – I wanted to capture something of the personality of the man I’d just spent the last hour and a half chatting to. The wonderful thing was, because this wasn’t a paid job, it was much more on my terms. I’d just told him I wanted to photograph him as work, I’d not promised any particular outcome, so if I wanted to change the game half way through, there was no reason not to.

When I returned to the kitchen, he asked “Shall we just keep chatting then?” This was perfect really – I’d no interest in asking him to pose for me as I didn’t want to lose the sense of who he really was by making him feel uncomfortable. So the conversation continued, just now there was a camera involved – fortunately, he seemed largely unfazed and the conversation kept flowing as it had been.

After a little while he asked if I wanted the tour, which of course I did. We went back downstairs where he retrieved some pieces of wood from under the counter in the showroom and started to tell me a bit about the process of making violins.

He then showed me into his repair workshop where he talked me through some of the tools of his trade and hunted about for things he could demonstrate.

It was at this point that I told him that I didn’t want him to worry too much about showing me anything in particular. It had really sunk in for me by now that this was to be a portrait piece, and much less about the craft of making violins. Of course, I didn’t want to make him feel too self-aware so I mumbled my way though telling him that I was more than happy for him to just show me around.

After we spent some time in his repair workshop he took me into his making space. An odd little room it was that was formed out of large steps that he told me were effectively buttresses holding back the hillside that the house was built on. Despite this he’d managed to make good use of the space, with his only complaint being a lack of a window – not for the light as such, he told me, but just to give him a sense that the real world was still out there.

Me being me, I asked him about the relationship he has with his tools. He very proudly showed me a few of his expensive American-made planes, and told me a story about a discarded chisel he once found when he was at violin making school that he still has. What I found particularly interesting was hearing him talk about how his relationship with his tools grows over time, he talked about them starting out as just tools, but after some use becoming something more. I could empathise.

I then asked if he could show demonstrate part of the process of making a violin. He has a rather special build in the works at the moment that was still in his customised vice on his workbench. He showed me the process of very finely contouring the wood with a specially shaped metal blade.

After this, he showed me his library/office space where he kept his collection of violin maker books – a good few of which he had contributed to himself.

By this time I’d been there for over 4 hours, but despite having shot less than the equivalent of two rolls of 35mm film in the whole time, I was more than happy that I’d achieved the goal of capturing something of this fascinating man and his life. We went back to the showroom where I took one last shot.

We hadn’t stopped talking for the whole time I’d been there, but as I’ve said, the majority of it I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing. That being said, at the beginning of this post I said the experience had felt like a timely conclusion to some of the thoughts I’d recently been having about my work. One of the threads of conversation was about enjoying ones work – this was touched on a few times throughout the conversation quite explicitly, but actually, it was implied in almost the entire conversation.

What I found when I visited Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh last Thursday was a man that seemed comfortable in his shoes and the space he’d made for himself, confident yet humble, creative, talented – and moreover – happy and successful in his vocation. He completes work for other people – be that making or repairing violins – but he does it more or less on his terms. Not in an arrogant way, I should add, but just in a way that suits both him and the people who he works for. I’m not there yet, but the interaction has certainly inspired me and helped solidify some of the recent thoughts of been having about the sort of work I want to shoot… And all this because I’d decided against stressing myself out shooting a new season of clothing. It’s funny how life and the choices you make sometimes seem to conspire to teach you lessons

You can find the full set on my personal website here
You can find out more about Padraig and his work on his website here

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24 thoughts on “A Portrait of a Violin Maker, and some reflections on shooting what I enjoy”

  1. Definitely one of the best Articles I’ve read here! Very powerful interactions leading to affecting images.

    Maybe more write-ups on portrait work and communication with subjects in the future?

  2. Great read, as usual.

    absolutely emphasized, and a lot jealous about finding your professional path to give you contentment.

  3. Love this article Hamish and the story around it. It’s a trajectory I would like to find myself on too. A portrait and more. It gives a sense of the person and his craft, through you and yours. The question is how do you monetise this kind of work to enable it to sustain a living other than commissions to document a business/artisan , not become a super star or anything but just allow you to do this kind of work and get paid for it? I’ve often heard that to improve your work you need a project, so it’s something I’ve been working on for the last Couple of years and have essentially completed it, now I need to work out how to make it pay its way. Then on to the next one.

    1. The carpet manufacturer is very much a paid project. It’s perhaps not as personal, but in many ways just as enjoyable. I was there again today, mostly filming and directing, to be fair, but still felt like I was in my element.
      As long as some things are paid, I’m quite happy doing the odd bit of work unpaid, I think

  4. Good on you Hamish.
    Two of Kodak’s old book titles seem to sum up your image making – “The Joy of Photography”, and “More Joy of Photography”.
    Our images always speak more loudly when we enjoy taking them

  5. This was great. I took on a similar project his year. It’s helped refresh my creativity and direction in photography. As a full-time photographer as well – I think it’s important that we still have a chance to focus on work that inspires us.
    Great read and images. Thanks for sharing!

  6. This was a pleasure to read, both in and of itself and as someone who never musters the courage to take portraits. Lovely images too. As someone who grew up in the area, it’s great to hear that the ‘carpet manufacturer’ is still going strong too!

  7. carlos albisu ruiz de alda

    Nice writing Hamish. It seems you equally enjoyed the photographing as the chat with the gentleman. Photography has to be enjoyed!

  8. Hi Hamish, I like the images and your text very much:) I think the apporach you took is perfect to get to know your subject and build confidence and this is visible in the images, congratulations!

  9. Great article, I love this sort of photography – people in their environment. On a business not I think it’s great that you are thinking of specialising in this area. I too run a small business (I make industrial test software) and I’ve been trying to specialise within that specialism. One person you might want to follow is an online coach called Philip Morgan. He encourages software developers to specialise, but the information is just as relevant for any professional in a niche. His website isn’t great but his daily emails are worth signing up for.

    Check out https://philipmorganconsulting.com

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