THE VIOLIN MAKER'S SON
by Susan Markisz
for The New York Times

March 1, 2001
Rye, NY


I was glad I went to work today. I should stress that I enjoy going to work most days, but when an editor prefaces an assignment with "this sounds kind of interesting," I'm usually hooked long before I take out my camera.

Robert Isley III is a "Luthier" which is French for violinmaker. Robert's six year old son, Robert Clark Isley was with his dad the day I went to his studio to take pictures of him crafting his violins, which take over 120 hours of meticulous work for each instrument.

As my camera's frame counter headed numerically upward on my second or third roll of film, my defining moment had not yet materialized.

   
The setting sun provided warm light coming in from the window of the small second-floor studio. Robert Isley, violinmaker, had several violins in various stages of development. One could barely imagine that he was crafting a $12,000 instrument, as he "thicknessed the rib stock," removing the bulk of wood from thin strips of wood with a block plane on his worktable. Later on, the wood took on the sensuous shape of the instrument we associate with philharmonic orchestras.

Robert Isley III, a Violinmaker, working in his studio on one of his handmade violins.
2001 Susan B. Markisz
for The New York Times


(A little name dropping here: Though I don't play the violin, I am a descendant of Ludwig Spohr, a 19th century German violinist, composer who conducted the Theater an der Wien (in Vienna) in the mid 1800's and who was a contemporary of Beethoven. I always enjoy a repartee with classical musicians, because they know all about Spohr, who, while celebrated in his day, and by contemporary fiddlers, never quite became a household name in the 20th century, but whose contribution to music is nonetheless well-known in classical music circles.)

As we talked about violinmaking and the making of music, Robert explained that his son played the violin. Young Robert, however, was shy and wanted no part of an intimate violin concerto in the presence of this photographer and his dad, preferring, instead, to play with his Game Boy, standing near his dad as he worked.


Robert appeared to be just a tad uncomfortable by his son's presence, (more on my behalf, I think), but I reassured him by saying: "He's fine, he's just fine." In truth, however, the little guy appeared at odd times in my viewfinder. I would get a nice picture of his dad, backlit by the waning window light, for example, with young Robert nearby, swinging around on a swivel chair, with only his leg sticking out. I wanted him either in the picture or out, but I did not have the heart to ask him to move.

Robert Clark Isley, 6, hangs out as his dad thicknesses the rib stock, planing wood to make a violin.
2001 Susan B. Markisz

for The New York Times


The son didn't figure in any significant way into the story, which was about instrument makers and their craft. (Earlier in the day, I had photographed a fellow making drones and chanters for bagpipes). But I knew in my heart that there was something to this unfolding scenario that would result in a picture.

Something about the child's presence and his relationship to his dad, kept my patience for imagery intact. I photographed around him, and I waited for an illusory moment, which I could no more have put into words than I could have composed the picture myself. I was not sure what it was I was waiting for, but I was certain, if I waited long enough, it would happen.

The warm afternoon sun had practically vanished now and I was left with the remnants of a dusky blue light coming in the window. I took out my flash, put it on a cord off camera and bounced the powered down strobe off the ceiling. Robert Isley mixed in a little bit of color to the varnish that he uses and then proceeded to work on a violin, lightly brushing some of the lustrous mixture on the wood, giving it a fine patina. Young Robert, meanwhile, had put down his Game Boy and had become intrigued by the finishing process. I realized that something was happening here. I was into my third roll of film; half of it with an imaginary latent image, like an artist's blank canvas, the potential for a really nice picture in the palette of my mind's eye. Painters may take umbrage to my analogy but photography doesn't just happen. It may require technology or circuitry of some kind, but ultimately it requires a vision, or an idea, or the seed of an idea. A seed is what I was working with.

Suddenly, the violinmaker's son, climbed up on a chair behind his dad, and put his arms around his dad's neck, peering over his shoulder, intently studying the application of varnish to the violin. My heart started beating faster, knowing that this is what it was I had been waiting for. I shot three or four frames, as six year old Robert Clark Isley surrounded his arms around his captive dad's shoulders for a few moments, at rapt attention as his dad worked meticulously on the violin. Almost as quickly, I realized there might be a better perspective. I got down on the floor, looked up at the father and son and saw the violins hanging from a rack in the background and pressed the shutter twice. I couldn't have asked for a sweeter or more genuine moment. Just as quickly, the moment was over, and so was my assignment.

Violinmaker Robert Isley III applies varnish to one of his handcrafted violins, as his son Robert Clark Isley peers intently over his shoulder.
Copyright 2001 Susan B. Markisz for The New York Times

The moment between father and son speaks volumes about parenthood, and patience and the craft of making something fine. A relationship, a violin, a photograph, a moment.

Susan B. Markisz
March 2001

Smarkisz@aol.com