Sometimes in life, things happen that we don’t expect. It’s usually best to take it with a grain of salt— or even better, a grain of salt, a slice of lime and a shot of tequila. About a year ago, Austin-based brand narrative photographer and Mexico native Joel Salcido was overdue for a personal project and had 4-5 topics that he was considering. Around that same time, he was invited to a private tequila tasting in Austin. Before he knew it, Joel was sitting across from Mr. Enrique De Colsa, the Master Distiller for Tequila Don Julio, sharing a plate of tacos and some top-shelf tequila. (Although they were probably drinking it “neat,” without lime and salt, as is the custom with fine tequila.)
One thing led to the next, and Joel was granted access to the Don Julio distillery in Atotonilco, Mexico, to document the making of tequila— a project that would soon become Joel’s “sexiest project of the year.”
The interesting thing about tequila production is that it has remained largely unchanged by modern farm machinery, but rather relies on centuries-old know-how. It is made from the agave plant, which is harvested by jimadores, who have extensive knowledge of how the plants need to be cultivated. If harvested too late or too early, the plant may not have the right amount of carbohydrates for fermentation.
Over 300 million blue agave plants are harvested each year in the city of Tequila, as well as the surrounding areas and in the highlands of the Mexican state of Jalisco. There, the volcanic soil is well suited to the growing of agave and produces it at its peak level of herbaceous fragrance and flavor.
After the piña (core) of the agave is harvested, it is put into the oven and baked, before being shredded under a large stone wheel and poured into vats for fermentation.
Once the images were finished, Joel knew he had something special, but had no idea how far the project would travel:
I knew from the start that the body of work was unique and comprehensive but I didn’t quite know if I could find a home for it. After showing a web gallery to a few art directors and photo editors, their response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. At this point I realized it had traction, but still had no idea how far I could run with it. So almost simultaneously, I began to strategize on two fronts; a traveling exhibit and a magazine publication.
The series has been on the road since June and has traveled to El Paso, New Mexico, and will be heading to Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin in 2014. The show was curated by UT Ransom Center Sr. Photography Curator Roy Flukinger and sponsored by Tequila Don Julio. The University of Texas at San Antonio recently acquired five editioned images for their permanent collection and Don Julio will continue to sponsor the exhibit throughout 2014. To boot, Joel recently worked with photo editor Leslie Baldwin and creative director T.J. Tucker of Texas Monthly on a spread in their December Food Issue, dedicating a total of ten pages to the series.
“I believe in being awake, alert and proactive to anything that inspires the creative within, otherwise you run the risk of sleepwalking through life. Needless to say, my best work to date continues to be whose inspiration was totally driven by passion. That’s likely why after more than 30 years, photography continues to be my mistress.”