Photographing things for people has always been about more than the subject at hand to me. Often said perhaps but as I see it, telling visual stories plays hand in hand with traveling, seeing new things and meeting people. I see it as a visual language that opens new conversations in far away places and records them onto film or into pixels.
One such fresh dialogue to me was a call to visit a world made of wood for a couple of days – from the ground to the sawblade and then on to the start of a new chapter in a living room or city skyline. Seeing this natural material nurtured, managed and traded in a the life cycle of a tree was eye opening and a conversation I was both privileged to see and shan’t take for granted again when I see a hand made dining table or a weatherproof supermarket exterior cladding.
These photographs illustrate a brief snippet of the long journey this material makes from seed to structure.
My script for the day was the workings of Sussex based English Woodlands Timber, and a sawmill up the road in Helmdon.
Seated in his command module overlooking and orchestrating the violent and yet delicate manouvering and slicing of huge logs, Steve Blackwell has been in this driving seat directing the traffic for decades. In a depleted landscape of such talents his is the only UK independent professional hardwood sawmill delivering a precise slice of your round timber to tolerances more akin to CNC machining aluminium components in engineering projects like architecture or car manufacturing.
It was a noisy place to spend your days and one with a familiar smell of heavy machinery and it’s oils that reminded me instantly of the most notable thing that bicycle factories all have in common. Growing up in London near Heathrow I became able to block out the white noise of a city and it’s daily arrivals and departures early on in life, but here was the reason those little orange ear plugs that seem a luxury on a train journey really exist. There’s nothing romantic about the sound a huge blade gnawing through heavy matter be it stone, steel or wood, but once ear plugged, visually it’s incredible. Seemingly whole tree trunks would be cradled and swung into a rolling path where neat and precise slices would be peeled off by a huge undulating fin, then drop neatly in a small cloud of sawdust and be taken away and stacked like huge slices of toast awaiting a buttering and marmalade. It was a brutal, violent ballet of creation from a natural source and it was mesmeric to watch.
Ear plugs removed, the next day back in Sussex sitting in the heart of the South Downs that were home to my two wheels for a couple of decades, I visited English Woodlands Timber – a sawmill that began making rifle butts from beech for Lee Enfield in the early 1940s in these hills. This was a familiar backdrop of long days in the saddle to me. Many a time I had drunk from the tap outside these fences and now it was time to breathe the inner workings of all those neatly stacked piles of timber drying in the open air, some of which had made their way from yesterday’s ballet for their next performance here.
Air drying, kiln drying, cutting, machining, packing and stacking ready for the next stage of everything from architectural structure to furniture making. This part of a timber’s journey was hands on in a respectful and in a way caring fashion compared with the necessary but aural violence of the previous scene.
Amongst the high tech equipment carrying out precision engineering of wooden stock, there was something reassuringly traditional about seeing a woodworker’s pencil and a hand tape measure still having role to play in this theatre of mechanised nature. Cranes, trucks, industrial saw blades and a little pencil being sharpened by hand with a penknife. It was almost poetic to see industry hand signed by a man with a pencil and a ruler. Somehow it brought all this mechanisation down to earth and into a living room.
At the end of a long day made of wood there was just room enough left for my usual preference to make a portrait of the humans pulling the strings. And when possible, their dogs.