When New York City-based portrait and editorial photographer Ian Spanier began visiting Latin American cigar factories on assignment, he was surprised to learn that around 400 hands touch each cigar from seed to sealed box. “Hand picking the seeds, washing, drying, sorting, “ he lists. “Fermenting, packing, stripping, bunching, rolling, inspecting, banding and boxing.”
Spanier was there to photograph the factories and the managers but the more he saw, the more he wanted to photograph the workers, the 400 hands that labored to produce the livelihood of the manufacturers. “There was an endless sea of interesting faces inside the various rooms of these factories,” he comments. “How could I not be drawn to them?”
The project started when Spanier was the chief photographer for the now defunct media company “Double Down Media,” which was in the process of publishing their first edition of the cigar magazine The Cigar Report. Publisher Aaron Sigmond was looking to establish the look of the magazine and brainstormed with Spanier on how he could shoot a number of factories and their managers with a consistent look, given some challenges and limitations on equipment, time, no assistant, and logistics.
Spanier had recently finished reading Laura Wilson’s book Avedon at Work on Richard Avedon’s travels in the American West, and he suggested a similar set up of white backdrops and available light. “His set ups often were done at the worst light of day, and he used the surroundings to light his subjects in the open shade of buildings and in some cases the sides of trailers,” he explains. “I thought it was brilliant.”
Spanier visited nearly every Latin country that manufactures cigars over the course of three and a half years. Double Down Media did not survive, but Sigmond, Spanier and writer Nick Kolokowski along with Creative Director Warren Mason continued to work together to produce a book of their travels for Playboy Enterprises. Playboy: The Complete Guide to Cigars is Playboy Enterprises first and only cigar book. The focus of the book was the countries, factories, and managers, but whenever he had the time, Spanier would ask the workers to pose for him as well.
“Once I started, I couldn’t stop,” he comments. “Each worker’s face, gesture, or demeanor told a tale, and thinking back to Avedon, I felt a similar story beginning to be told. I wanted to show the workers much in the same way I interpreted Avedon’s photographs of the drifters he found out in the American West.” Spanier worked with speed, handpicking the subjects and working off of instinct. “I often think your first instinct is your best, so walking through the factory I’d make note of those subjects I wanted to make pictures of,” he says.
The set up was a simple, contemporary solution to Avedon’s set ups. Spanier used a Canon Mark III 1Ds, 24-105 mm lens, and a seamless backdrop that he toted around until he had to give it up while entering Cuba. He opted for blank walls for the rest of his travels. With a simple set up he was able to work efficiently, and communicated with mostly non verbal directions to overcome any language barriers. With or without the language barrier, Spanier tends to let his subjects fall into a natural stance without directing them too much. He says, “My challenge is to try to get a real expression from my subject, I see it as a little game of lulling them into a place where they are not thinking about being photographed and they become their true self.”
Spanier is “pretty old school” despite making the switch to digital, and the cigar worker images have a film quality to them. He says he doesn’t rely on Photoshop and uses the digital medium the same way he used to work in a darkroom. The portraits are simple, raw depictions of the workers with an honest “what you see is what you get” feel to them, yet there is beauty in the transparency.
The worker series appeared in June in The Huffington Post’s new iPad magazine Huffington. For more of Ian Spanier’s work, visit his Web site.