Working from nine in the morning to four in the afternoon “including cloudy and rainy days.” That’s what the advertisement for José Pérez Zafra’s photographic studio included in the newspaper says. Nothing will prevent him from working – until four in the afternoon – every day, not even the lack of light. He also has popular prices: the card portraits cost 20 reais and the cheaper copies cost four. If you want a group, with the whole family, that already has to be negotiated. Also if a color photo is requested, because José does it by hand and it takes his time and dedication. But it is, without a doubt, the business card that is the most demanded product and photographers like José take the opportunity to advertise themselves on the back and sides. José was one of the first portrait painters to open a shop in Almería, in 1864, and like so many other painters at the end of the 19th century, he became a photographer in the face of the popular push of new technology that was constantly evolving and presented itself as a great opportunity to establish a new business that had just been born in France and spread throughout the world.
French daguerreotypists soon arrived in Spanish cities. Jean Laurent settled in Madrid from 1843; Charles Clifford, in 1850. They had a virgin country to photograph, as traveling photographers had a population to portray. They dragged their gear from town to town, like portrait artists bringing their cameras, tripods and sets home. Although not everyone could afford a photo at the time, they presented themselves to their clients as photographers capable of doing it quickly and without any hassle. Others offered to do all kinds of works of this new art “inside and outside the workshop”, as Donato Gómez Díaz has investigated.
Of that revolutionary world and those futuristic biographies that created a mechanism of representation that would change the history of humanity, hardly anything has remained. Perhaps a ‘smartphone’, another revolution. Traditional trades respond to specific needs, which, when they disappear, take everything away and leave only a trace of melancholy. “That which no longer serves, disappears”, says the ethnographer Juan Francisco Blanco, director of the Institute of Identities of Salamanca, dedicated to the protection, recovery, conservation and study of the hallmarks of Salamanca.
What was business and disappears becomes a document, and the portrait in the business card, in testimony of an extinct era in which there were watchmen, water carriers or wandering photographers. There are also no lumberjacks, who repaired ceramic plates that fell to the ground or peeled off. Neither the millers, nor romaneros, nor aguardenteros. All male trades. And the women had no trade? “They had no benefits. No remuneration. They dedicated themselves to care and service, repertoires that were not paid for, ”says Paz Gómez, anthropologist and head of the lists of intangible cultural heritage assets of the Community of Madrid. Until the running water arrived, there were water carriers, who approached the fountains with the jars and carried it to the houses; also remember the embroiderers from Lagartera (Toledo) and the guisanderas, such as Carmen, from Venturada (Madrid). Not a cook, no, a steward. It all started by chance many years ago, during the holidays. A heifer escaped and had to be killed. To take advantage of the meat, the mayor decided to set up a stew for all the residents of the town and Carmen and her friend Petra were there. She had been working in kitchens all her life, for a very rich family in Madrid, she says. “We started like this, silly, and we have spent more than 20 years making stew for the towns of Monterrey, Espartal and El Vellón, in addition to Venturada. I have never asked for a salary, although later they paid us €300, says Carmen. She cooked three stews for the most numerous, with 380 kilos of potatoes, 300 kilos of meat and… the secret ingredient: Coca-Cola to soften the brava meat. “Cook, cook, no. I have no title. I did not study. I like to cook ”, summarizes in this self-portrait the cook, who has retired and has given her command to head the popular stew.
The female legacy
The women, recalls Paz Gómez, did several things at the same time, such as tending the cattle and sewing, but these tasks did not remove them from invisibility. The added problem is that if they are not recognized as owners of a trade, there is no transmission of knowledge. Neither they nor their knowledge exist. “Tradition is a cultural continuity that the community has decided to keep in force, but without it there is no heritage,” Gómez warns. That is why it is pleasantly striking that Ervigio Jiménez acknowledges having learned everything he knows about his trade from Carmen Rodríguez. “He is an enthusiastic and passionate person,” says this artisan from Granada dedicated to making muqarnas and plasterwork, who studies the history of Islamic art in Spain to learn about the origins of one of the most delicate and beautiful decorative techniques that exist. Ervigio is now 73 years old and has no one to inherit his knowledge. There is a lack of vocation, he assures him, because it is very difficult. “It is a very complex job and mastering it is not easy. I keep trying. There is no continuity due to a question of attitude: you want to win a lot and soon, but you don’t know how to do it. This job is a very slow learning process and neither I can afford it nor they are willing to go through it. Here, in Granada, there is no one left but me. And in Seville there is a younger person who does my same job, but I don’t know anyone else, “says the craftsman, who does not rest on holidays, nor does he have long weekends.
If women are not recognized as owners of a trade, there is no transmission of knowledge: they do not exist, nor do their knowledge
He has been busy for some time with a luxury project that an English couple is building in what for most is the most beautiful neighborhood in Granada, the Albaicín. There they have bought a house that overlooks the Alhambra and in which they want to set up a millionaire Andalusian corner. He has made arches, epigraphs and plaster friezes that will decorate the rooms of the house. It is the first time that the owners have not hired him, but the architects who are designing the project. Nor is it usual for him to work in Granada, the commissions are usually received from abroad. His land does not demand the typical product.
He talks about the passion for his work. Being passionate and getting up every day like this to go to the workshop to make the molds for the muqarnas or to draw them. Because he continues to draw by hand and that emphasizes it. He doesn’t like new technologies and it’s hard for him to be called an artist. “I consider myself an artisan,” he points out. He prefers it. He also wants us to know that he has worked in countries like the US and on the sets of series like ‘Isabel’, about the Catholic queen.
As long as there is demand, there is life, although in the era of planned obsolescence, tradition is a burden. Crafts are a source of memory and extinction, a machine for generating extinct trades and intangible cultural heritage to protect. The craft is David against the industry, Goliath. While Luis Velasco charges two euros for each bobbin he makes on his lathe, risking his fingers, the industrial copiers sell them for 40 cents. “There’s nothing to do. This ends with me. You don’t pay as a business, ”says this turner from Toledo, who started at the age of 14 and is still there, in the carpentry shop that belonged to his uncle and from whom he learned the trade, on Merced Street. He is 65 years old and not a hint of melancholy in his tone, it is pure impotence; also indignation at seeing how his job has been degraded in the last 15 years. Before, two other people worked with him and they could deal with the orders. Today he is alone and cursing these damn bobbins that are so, so fine where the threads will be wound to interweave them and make lace, mantillas or whatever happens.
Luis Velasco charges two euros for each bobbin he makes on the lathe, risking his fingers; industrialists are worth 40 cents: “There is nothing to do,” he says
The end of an era
Sheathed in his blue overalls, surrounded by wood and shavings, he approaches the lathe and starts it up again. He puts on his glasses to see where he places his hands. The piece of wood starts to turn and then he takes out the gouge to carve it and get the shape out from under that billet. He also uses the chisel and chisels. Once he has defined the shape, he starts with the sandpaper and refines the touch. From there have come balusters and columns of museums, convents, inns, patios and palaces. The workshop walls are lined with his tools. It is a forgotten museum, a corner for oblivion. When Luis is gone there will be nothing. So that we understand his disappointment, he compares his work with the industrialist: it is like harvesting by hand while someone else uses a tractor. “Progress. That is the reason for the disappearance. And I have to leave you because a man is waiting for me for an assignment”, he says goodbye.
Only memory remains to the trade. And hardly. We called the Riaño Mountain Ethnographic Museum, directed by Pedro Luis González, to find out if there are any trades left in the area from the ancients, from those on the verge of extinction. He spends a long time and calls us because he has remembered that in Corniero (León) there is a basket maker named José María, the last one. Since José María doesn’t like to talk, he sends us away soon. That he has things to do. In Corniero there are 45 people registered, but many fewer live. There before, all the neighbors resorted to the baskets to store the potatoes or the work. In reality, few implements have been more present in daily life for decades than those baskets and baskets. “Now nothing,” he says, sparingly. José María started making baskets to sell in the towns of the area and now, at 73 years old, he says that he is going to give it up, that after the pandemic things have not improved, of course. “People don’t want it.” There are many materials that can be used to make a basket –in Béjar (Salamanca) they use chestnut-, but he prefers reeds from the river. Before, he used to go down to the shores to get them, but now he buys them on request.
The memory of the work will also be lost with Jesús Molero, the fourth generation of a family that has been dedicated to inlaying and engraving furniture since 1888. He would like to set up a school so that the trade that has led him to set up a church in Tokyo (Japan) does not disappear.
His work is patience, design, precision and delicacy in dealing with wood so that everything fits. There is a portrait of his father in the studio where he draws, but he doesn’t forget that it was his mother, Estrella Sabador, who taught him to engrave with the burin. From his father, Víctor Molero, he learned the treatment of wood. From his workshop in Peligros (Granada), he has worked for clients from all over the world and it hurts him to see the lack of vocation in the new generations for one of the few safe tasks in Chinese industrial manufacturing.
He uses the same woods that his ancestors used: ebony, rosewood, mahogany and walnut, and also bone. Working with him is his wife, Ángeles Oscáriz, who does the work of ‘marketing’ and dissemination: “Crafts are a product but not an industry”, he says to explain why they have been working for more than two years on a commission for “a very important person from Saudi Arabia.”
Ángeles Oscáriz does not believe that her furniture engraving workshop will last much longer: “There is a dizzying pace that ends everything,” she says
The pandemic has not touched the foundations of the Molero workshop. “We have been at 120%”. Jesus likes to say that his virtuous abilities are based on genetics, research, and skill. But it may not be enough to avoid the bitter end. Almost unavoidable. Why? “Because craftsmanship is based on the good treatment of materials. No one respects them more than a craftsman. There is a vertiginous rhythm that ends with everything, also with intimacy: the doors of one’s house no longer open, it is received in other places but not in your house. Society is going somewhere else. And in Ángeles Oscáriz’s explanation is the answer.