Here is how I take pictures for Instagram. I see something. I take the picture. Or if I'm photographing a spoon, I walk around, put the spoon down, and take the picture. Whatever is next to the spoon is real. I didn't put the Garfield cartoons in the picture after the fact. I didn't put my kid's sneaker or the bottle of bubbles in the frame after the fact. It was there and I put the spoon down next to it. If I have a lot of spoons to photograph, I put the handful down and photograph them the way they landed. I don't spend time arranging them to look random. They ARE random. It's a real moment.
This may seem like a silly distinction to make in a media as curated as Instagram. I only show you parts of my life, and I definitely crop stuff out. I also curate my feed as a whole, to delete old posts that don't work well as a team with the overall thing I want it to be. So why quibble about how staged a photo is? And isn't it just as staged if I put a spoon in a particular spot? Don't I sometimes arrange spoons quite geometrically?
But I don't think it's silly. In a space where the only rules on what I do are the ones I impose on myself, I find it helpful to have some structure to the photographs I take. This rigor makes them more meaningful to me. It feels more like I am capturing the reality of a situation than constructing it. The discipline of this also makes me make strong artistic choices by chance that I would never have chosen otherwise. I used to pose my spoons next to succulents or artfully arranged fruit. Those pictures with the Garfield and sneaker and bubbles? Way better. But I wouldn't have done it if I didn't have the rules for myself.
When I take a picture of a moment in time, I am amazed at how often my first picture is the best picture. The act of taking out a camera changes things, and the sooner it is put away the more intact the moment remains.
So here are my rules for keeping it real on Instagram: I can walk around with a spoon, but then I put it down and take the picture. Ideally, the picture will tell a bit of a story beyond the spoon: the book someone is reading, the cherry tomatoes picked from the garden, the wooden bowl I promised my grandmother I'd refinish ages ago. Glimpses of my real life.
I try to snap as few takes as possible. Usually the first is the best, but sometimes I have to try a few places to find the right light. I use filters and focus to make it look like reality and to draw the eye to what I want to be the object of attention, but I try not to juice the colors.
I try to share my life in a real way. That is, after all, what I want from you.
Well, today I took part in my first ever scything competition today! It was at the Addison County Fair and Field Days, way up near Burlington, Vermont. I got up at 5, started driving at 6, and got there (with a few turnarounds on rural highways) at 10. By 10:20 I mowed my first trial, and then my second around 10:45. Each was a 25 ft. length, swath as wide as you wanted. You got timed, and then the width of your swath and the length of your stubble was somehow factored in. I don't know my time to do this, but it was just a couple minutes really for each. And I was cutting about an 8 foot swath, with the stubble quite short except at the very end, where it got longer as the blade dulled. The grass was very heavy and lush, lodged over with the rain and a lot to move. Not ideal mowing but not awful.
Spoiler alert: I came in 3rd in one category. And I was also shocked at how hard it was to mow quickly like this. When I mow properties, whether my own or for someone else, the goal is never speed, but efficiency. I need to be able to continue doing this for a couple hours. So the emphasis is on good posture, gentle motion, a keen blade. This, however, was a sprint.
And it got me thinking. It seems like in our culture we glorify the sprint. The fast money. The overnight success. The 25 foot strip of grass that left me with sweat fanning down my face and my chest heaving.
But really that is a shallow way of looking at things. For me, the success is in the skill acquired from hours and hours and hours doing something. The dedication of years spent pursuing a goal, whether it seemed Quixotic or not. The quiet, steadfast continuing of something, whether it is a business, a skill, or your family relationships. Those don't get the glory, the prize. But they are really too priceless to assign a prize to. They are themselves the prize.
At the end of the competition, this great scyther Alfonso Diaz (who won the overall category, by the way) and myself did a peening lesson for all the people interested in learning to use their scythes better. And we talked about starting a US (or North American) Scything Association, to promote scythe use and make resources available for people just starting out. Maybe we will hold different events. But I like to think that at least any event I will hold will be a communal mowing rather than a competition. People could arrive the first day, hang out and get their scythes repaired and peened, and then early the next morning we would all start in on some mowing project that seems overwhelming for one person, and experience that pleasure that in many ways is the opposite of a speed competition at a county fair: a shared task, quietly and steadfastly completed as a group. To me, that is the essence of scything.
When I look back at what I carve and why I carve it, one thing really stands out:
I am usually wrong.
For instance. I used to refuse to carve scoops, because I don't really use scoops myself (I have a rack full of lovely wooden spoons, waiting to be used for things like measuring out coffee), so I scorned the very need for such a thing. I felt sure they would be a pain in the neck to make, and that they were a frivolous kitchen thing.
I finally agreed to make some for one of my best customers. And boy, was I wrong. It turns out I LOVE carving scoops. They are fun to carve and fun to photograph and a well-made, well-designed scoop is a pleasure to use. I now carve a lot of them.
Same story with miniscoops, and long-handled scoops and spreaders. Every time, someone has come to me and asked if I could make them this thing that I hadn't made before. And it has always been an epiphany to say yes.
What I have come to realize is that I have a lot to learn from my customers.
I have a lot to learn in how to be a better craftsman, how to better serve their needs, how to design even the tiniest details of my spoons (want to know if something works or not? Ask a customer what they would change!). I have gotten feedback from a professional chef on what a serious cook looks for in a cooking spoon. I have asked every one of my students who come for a spooncarving lesson what I could do better in the future. I have said yes to orders that have pushed me outside my comfort zone in terms of scale or what I'm trying to make (70 spreaders?.... sure. A super long handled scoop?.... sure. Eight identical spoons but each from a different species of wood?... sure). I have switched the finish I use on my spoons based on customer feedback. I have started selling blanks and giving lessons via Skype, not because I thought of these things on my own, but because someone asked me if I would and I said yes.
As spooncarvers, we often find ourselves in the position of educating people about why we do what we do, the way we do it. We talk about the value of knife-finish, about crank, about how a well-designed spoon is actually better than the cheap one you can buy at the grocery. But all this teaching can obscure the fact that we should be listening to our customers at least as much as we are doing the talking. What do they want in a spoon? What do they want in their kitchen? How can we help them achieve what THEY want to achieve? Asking these questions will make each of us a better craftsperson, teacher or designer, and we will probably be surprised by where we end up when we start listening.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.