My hometown of Santa Fe would never be mistaken for an industrial mecca. An epicenter of art? You bet. A destination for all things turquoise? Unquestionably. A budding film production hub? Trying. But there is very little made on a mass scale here - Santa Fe, pretty much all of northern New Mexico, for that matter, still boasts a thriving artisan community - weavers, potters, farmers, jewelers making things the old way, by hand, either the way they learned as children from the hands of elders, or the way the mentors they came here to find, who still remember the traditional ways to make things, showed them. Click here to see the Custom Hatters of Santa Fe.
That handhewn quality is one of the things that felt right, that made me feel right at home, from the very beginning when I first migrated here from my native San Francisco. And in my time here, I've had the honor of photographing the hands of many artists, producing many things the old way - as when I spent a few weeks documenting the journey of a pot from buckets initial dirt clay dug from sacred pueblo land to the final fired piece with potter Linda Trafoya Sanchez. I've photographed sculptors staining their pieces with pigments made from minerals found on their land, weavers working with yarn sheared and spun from the flock down the road, dyed from their garden vegetables. It's all pretty damn hands on, and after a few years of driving up and down and all around New Mexico, I thought I knew the the basic lay of the land, artisanal-wise, like the back of my hand, as it were.
Then I received an assignment to cover a trade I never knew existed: The Secret Arts of the Custom-Made Cowboy Hat. Little did I know that while classic cowboy outputs such as Austin, Texas no longer boast a single custom hat maker (according to my inside source in Santa Fe...), Santa Fe lays claim to no fewer than three custom hat makers. Not only that, but for those of us who fetishize tools of the trades - the old coffee can buckets filled with a painter's favorite brushes, the geometric array of a jewelers gadgets, or a chefs' arsenal of personal knives - the things the mad hatters of Santa Fe use to make those custom hats are intriguingly vintage, and could be considered objects d'art in their own right. There are the symmetrical rows of aged wooden blocks representing every size of head, the antique sewing machines used to adhere the lining to the hat, the metal type used to imprint the owner's name upon that lining, and the queen of them all, a spectacular victorian contraption called the conformateur, used to "memorize" the irregularities of one's head and convey those to the actual dome of the hat.
The tools, the methods, and the makers themselves were rich in character and history. This story was originally produced on assignment for Santa Fean magazine, but I could easily see extending it for yard to come. Who knows - maybe I'll even own my own cowboy hat one day....