For some months now my friends Kate Davies and Tom Barr have been working together on an important book: Shetland oo : wool , textiles , work. Published by Kate Davies Designs, this book celebrates the people in Shetland who work with wool (or oo as it’s known there). It features essays by Kate paired with photographic portraits by Tom. I really love the monumental and textural quality of Tom’s photography and especially the way he captures the tactile qualities of wool.
He has a knack for capturing the atmosphere of a moment in a way that I try to do too, with sound. Therefore, when I heard that Tom was intending to document Shetland’s rich and diverse wool industry in photos, I was excited to hear more! I went to Shetland myself in 2013 to make recordings for Listening to Shetland Wool: where Tom was packing lenses and tripods into bags this summer, I’d often been before, but with microphones and wind baffles.
Though taking photos and making sound recordings are different practices, they are both about perceiving and exploring the world around us. I thought it would be really interesting to talk to Tom about taking photos for this book, and to share our perspectives as comrades who have been to Shetland and fallen in love with the amazing people who work in the thriving wool industry there. I’ve also created a new video for the KNITSONIK YouTube channel that combines some of Tom’s photos from the book with my field recordings which you can watch (and hear) below.
F: Hi Tom, I’m extremely excited about yours and Kate’s forthcoming book – Shetland oo : wool , textiles , work. Some readers will be familiar with Shetland textiles through attending Shetland Wool Week. However, with your unique perspective and photographic focus, I feel that this book will offer new and enriching ways of looking at Shetland textiles. I’ve also worked on a documentary project in Shetland celebrating the wool industry there and I thought it might be interesting for us to compare notes.
T: Thanks for inviting me for this chat, Felix.
F: Many readers will know you from Kate’s blog as the talented photographer for all her amazing books and knitwear designs. However, this new book is a departure for you both as the focus is not on Kate’s knitwear designs but rather on the people and landscape behind Shetland oo. Could you say a bit about how this book came about, and what you have aimed to capture in your images?
T: I suppose there are two things that especially interest me as a photographer (as well as from a socio-political or humanist perspective): people at work (or play) and where that work (or play) takes place. Shetland is a fascinating place to think about the relationship between human labour and place, and my starting point with the project was a desire to show how a particular landscape has been shaped by the work of wool, and to illustrate the many different ways in which wool shapes humans lives in turn. I wanted to show people at work, and in the places where that work occurs, and in Shetland those spaces are very varied – from the cosy interiors of sheds and living rooms, to the drama of wind-blown hills and cliffs. My guiding principle was that the images should suggest the real dignity and beauty of the work that’s done with wool and textiles in Shetland, and hopefully capture some of those same qualities in working Shetlanders themselves.
F: Listening to Shetland Wool is a sound map I created in 2013 for Shetland Wool Week that year, and it features sounds from all over the islands that relate in some way to the context of Shetland Wool. I wanted to do that project because I think that sometimes when you look at a skein of yarn, you can all too easily forget the long story of its creation and – particularly in the case of Shetland – the extraordinary social history with which it is associated. In recording and amplifying different sounds related to the history of Shetland Wool and knitting, I wanted to foreground those stories and that history and to celebrate them. Did you have similar motivations for wanting to document Shetland oo?
T: Yes, absolutely. It’s interesting to hear what you say about amplification, because I suppose that is exactly how I think about the effect of different photographic media, like black and white photography, or film work (examples of both of which you’ll find throughout the book). The black and white images of many photographers I really admire (such as Sebastião Salgado) lend ordinary human actions a monumental quality, and I was particularly keen to explore how black and white photography might allow us to see Shetland wool work for the incredible and—yes—monumental thing it is—especially the kind of work that is sometimes overlooked because it is conducted by women in domestic spaces. I hope that some of my black and white images of Shetlanders engaged in skilled activities like spinning and knitting have a similarly amplified quality to the sounds on your map.
F: When I was recording sounds in Shetland, I started by listening to oral histories from the Tobar an Dualchais archives and emailing friends in Shetland for their views on the sounds that were important to them… I wanted to hear Shetlanders speaking about sheep and wool first-hand, and was listening out for ideas of what to record. Then when I got to Shetland, I found many more sounds through people being helpful and making suggestions, and also just through listening and the luck of being in the right place at the right time. I wonder if you could talk about the process by which you found your images for this book – research; friends; suggestions made by others; and good old fashioned luck?
T: You’ll know yourself what a welcoming place Shetland is, and I really did find kindness and generosity everywhere I went. Folk I’d never met before were keen to help with suggestions for locations and subjects, and because people allowed me to see the reality of their working lives, my eyes were genuinely opened to what work with wool involves. There were certainly several moments of good luck (or good light), but I know that what will stick in my mind about the project when I look back in years to come is the good humour and warm welcome of Shetlanders, many of whom I now count as my friends.
F: The process of pootling about and recording my sounds gave me the impression of Shetland as a very welcoming place, in which there is an extraordinary community of wool workers who have an infectious passion and pride for Shetland Wool. I especially remember a lovely afternoon with Elizabeth Johnston spinning on her gorgeous wheels; a wonderful time spent listening to Oliver Henry talking about the history of Shetland Oo; and a joyful morning with Hazel Tindall, spent recording her knitting on steel needles with a belt. What was your experience of travelling round Shetland to take photos for Shetland Oo?
T: I completely agree about Shetland’s passion for and pride in wool, and the beneficial effects of travel around the islands. There were two aspects of this I equally enjoyed: the particularly intense sociability of talking to and photographing people about their work, and the meditative solitude of being out in the Shetland landscape, and engaging in a different kind of photographic activity. I love the great Shetland outdoors, and these solitary landscape shoots often gave me time to reflect on the work I’d done, and that which was to come. Over the course of the project, I don’t think there was a single day I didn’t return to my accommodation with wet feet, or covered in mud and sheep shit. Apart from obviously needing some sort of washable boiler-suit uniform in which to conduct my photography, I couldn’t have been happier.
F: One of the reasons I like working with documentary sound is that I feel it has an almost textural quality. When I think of Shetland, I think of the sounds of Arctic Terns and Oystercatchers mingling in the air with those of sheep, and of the broad sonic vocabulary of the North Atlantic Ocean that whispers and roars, depending on where you are and what the weather’s like. To me these sounds speak to the geographic context of Shetland and help describe it as a very particular sort of wool-growing environment. Also, when I head out with my recording equipment, I nearly always pick up lots of wind. There aren’t many trees in Shetland and I think you can hear that when you listen to recordings made there. I wonder if there are equivalents or parallels between my experiences of listening to soundwaves and yours of watching the light? How do you go about capturing texture in your photographs and evoking the special tactile qualities of Shetland? Are there particular materials or textures with which you now associate the Shetland landscape, and do you think the light there has a certain quality that you really notice as a photographer?
T: Texture is something that really interests me as a photographer, and this is one of the reasons I enjoy shooting images in black and white. Sometimes colour can be distracting, and I find that without it you can have your attention drawn to the interesting specificity of rough or smooth, hairy or woolly textures. But with our without colour, I think that Shetland is full of fascinating texture. There’s so much variety in the land itself, from cliffs to sandy shorelines. Also, because there’s generally a wind, and because that wind is constantly moving the grasses and other vegetation, textures are continually being reshaped and recreated. I know the special quality of the Shetland light is something of a cliché but its completely true. There’s just a certain something about being 60 degrees north on these windswept islands under an always rapidly-moving sky.
F: My first field recording in Shetland was made at Sumburgh Head. It was actually strange because, as I was approaching the lighthouse there, I noticed the colours which I had first seen in your photographs in Kate’s book, Colours of Shetland. I walked all around the lighthouse, looking at the bright sunlight striking the pale paint, and I listened to the distant surf below; the nice sounds of families walking about trying to see the Puffins; and the baas of all the sheep around the headland. There were oystercatchers and terns too, and I was filled with the joyous feeling of having really arrived. Do you remember your first ever photograph in Shetland, and what was that made you want to go back and look again with this deeper focus on Shetland Oo?
T: I first travelled with Kate to Shetland in 2010, but the first time I really went there with a photographic mission was when we shot the pictures for Colours of Shetland in 2012. For Kate’s Stevenson designs (inspired by Shetland lighthouses) we shot a set of images at the Bressay lighthouse. It was a very bright, contrasty day, and I became obsessed with getting exactly the right wide-angled shot of Kate, the lighthouse, and the bright blue Shetland sky.
I’ve learned an awful lot about photography since then, but I still find myself obsessed with the Bressay lighthouse, and the dramatic arch on which it sits. On my last Shetland visit, I stayed in one of the lighthouse cottages, and spent many happy hours clambering about on the rocks beneath the buildings, trying to capture the lighthouse and its iconic arch. I found I couldn’t photograph the arch without falling in the sea, but managed to shoot a couple of nice images from both above and below.
I feel that lighthouse has still got more to show me, and I am looking forward to visiting it again in February, when I’ll have the honour of joining the jarl squad for the Bressay Up Helly Aa.
F: Finally, I think my favourite sound from Listening to Shetland Wool is the clock ticking in the Shetland Croft House Museum. I love that sound because it’s so subtle and so everyday, and yet it speaks to the many hours that Shetland women spent knitting between around the 1850s and the late 1900s. Those American mantel clocks were fashionable in Shetland at that time and when I heard one ticking away in the Shetland Croft House Museum, I recognised its sound from all the oral histories that I’d listened to, recorded in croft houses in the 1970s. It was a combination of luck, research and just noticing, but I always think of that sound as the soundtrack to all the incredible knitwear on display in the Shetland Museum and Archives. I wonder if you might tell us the story of your favourite photograph in the book?
T: I am fond of so many of the book’s images and seem to develop a new favourite every day. But top of my list has to be a photo I shot at the Shetland marts, during a particularly busy sheep auction. The photograph shows the young lad whose job it is to open and close the gates of the pens, releasing and re-penning the animals after they have been sold and painted with the identifying mark of their new owner. There are many things I like about the image. It is a portrait of someone at work, but that someone is not aware of me or my camera, and there’s nothing posed about it. This lad has got a particular job to do, and he has been caught in the momentary pause between one set of actions and another. The sunlight streams in through the open doors, and he squints against it, illuminating his face. I particularly like the textures of the image: his clothing, the metal bars, the concrete walls, the woolly sheep. I also like that you can see his cuffed left hand lightly tapping up and down on the bars of the gate—perhaps beating time to a tune playing out in his head. The photo captures a brief moment of individual distraction and quiet amidst all the bustle and noise and hard work of the marts. It’s an image of the ordinary and the everyday, but there’s just something in the way that the bright light falls on the boy and the sheep that makes it really special too —like a benediction.
Thank you Tom for sharing your process with us here on the KNITSONIK blog and on the KNITSONIK YouTube channel! To see more of Tom’s stunning photos you can check out the beautiful gallery on Kate’s website or buy a copy of the book mentioned in this post from the KDD webshop.