In Great Britain, “to take silk” refers to joining a King or Queens’ council, and means you are held in the highest regard. Tokyo-based photographer Irwin Wong has always seen the craftsmen of the silk in the same light. Unfortunately, the silk weavers of Japan are part of a dying breed. Irwin decided to dedicate a photo shoot to the last silk weaving factory in Kyoto, and perhaps all of Japan. At the factory, master craftsmen meticulously create incredibly expensive costumes for Noh, an ancient type of Japanese theatre. He also searched for the craftsmen responsible for dying these fabrics. In photographing these artists, Irwin hoped to remind people just how impressive it is to dedicate oneself to a craft.
Taking portraits of artisans in Japan has been a pastime of Irwin’s for many years, but only recently did he decide that he would like to make a series out of the images. His main challenge with the project was finding the craftsmen in the first place.
Most of them have been in the same place for generations but they don’t have websites or any advertising to speak of. In order to find them you need to keep your ear to the ground or make the right kind of friends.
Irwin relied on several professors and historians around Japan to introduce him to the master craftsmen.
I’d approach them first, offer to make portraits of them, and through that we’d become friends.
Most of the preproduction for Irwin involved explaining who he was, what he did, and then scheduling a time to come out and shoot. Irwin prides himself on his ability to work on location in photographically challenging environments. He uses this ability to capture his subjects in their element, immersed in their craft and not worried about the camera.
The silk factory and its master craftsmen provided an infinite amount of subject matter and color for Irwin to capture. He aimed to show off the fastidious nature of the artisans as they worked on the most intricate of patterns with unmatched precision. Their finished products are a truly remarkable representation of their dedication and skill, and another piece Irwin sought to include in the photo series.
Irwin says that through this process, he was reminded that getting involved with things you are interested in is essential in connecting you to people you find interesting and perhaps, subjects worth photographing. He plans to continue his search for the master craftsmen of Japan.
Japan’s proud tradition of handmade craftsmanship is slowly fading, and before it goes away entirely I’d like to try and document as many artisans as I can, in the hope that I can inspire people to see how cool they are.
To view more of Irwin’s work visit irwinwong.com.