There are many invisible people who make the art world run: art handlers, registrars, conservators, exhibition designers. We don’t often see these people listed on press releases or wall placards, but it’s thanks to their work that we get to have meaningful aesthetic experiences. One of the largest groups of behind-the-scenes laborers is artisans — the welders, sculptors, painters, finishers, and others who realize large-scale pieces of art, often on behalf of big-name artists. And one of the places best known for its artisans is Pietrasanta, Italy.
Pietrasanta has a storied history: Michelangelo sought marble there in 1518 on the orders of Pope Leo X. Since then, countless artists have made their way to the Tuscan town, which has maintained its artistic industry and reputation over the centuries. Today dozens of marble studios and bronze foundries dot Pietrasanta, and the artisans — or artigiani, in Italian — who work there realize pieces for the likes of Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Fernando Botero, Helaine Blumenfeld, and others.
Photographer Henryk Hetflaisz came to Pietrasanta by way of making portraits of sculptors. “What I discovered is that very few sculptors working today inhabit the kind of studios we associate with early-20th-century artists. Many sculptors work with paper or clay; others use computer-aided design to craft their models. All the scaling up in plaster, all the enlargements and of course the execution in marble (and indeed in bronze) is done outside of the sculptor’s studio,” Hetflaisz told Hyperallergic. “Over and over again, I heard the name of Pietrasanta come up. And it was here, in this small Tuscan town, idyllically situated between the beaches of the Mediterranean and the marble mountains of Carrara, that I discovered more that 40 marble studios and foundries filled with artisans.”
Hetflaisz was so taken with the artigiani, he decided to photograph them. “I was incredibly moved by the dedication of these men and women, by their fervor and their passion for their work, and above all I was blown away by their skill,” he said. “There is an art in their craft. To do the job well requires a true eye, an extraordinary attention to detail, an ability to translate an idea from one material (usually plaster) into another and of course, a mastery of scale — work looks very different when it is 100 times the size and so many artistic decisions need to be made along the way.”
Hetflaisz spent six months in Pietrasanta getting to know the artisans and taking both portraits and action shots. Collectively titled Homo Faber, the resulting photographs — a number of which are currently on view at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York — are suffused with Hetflaisz’s admiration; in many the artisans seem to almost become part of their work. This can feel like an over-romanticization until you remember that their names won’t be attached to these pieces at all. Which made me wonder how they felt about being photographed.
“I felt that these extraordinary skilled artisans deserved to have the spotlight turned on them and had hoped that they would be pleased to have their pictures shown in New York,” Hetflaisz explained. “Most have been, and I have had dozens of positive messages and thanks. Others, however, are more concerned about how the artists, whose pieces they are seen working on, will react. Many wanted only their first name and the name of the studio in the photo captions. The world of the artisans in Pietrasanta is an ego-free zone.”
Henryk Hetflaisz’s photos are on view in Michelangelo and Versilia at the Italian Cultural Institute (686 Park Avenue, Manhattan) through January 4, 2015.