Adrian Chitty spent over a year embedded in the production team at A to Z Wineworks as an artist-in-residence. The fruit of hundreds of hours of labor, and thousands of frames shot by the self-taught photographer, now hangs at the Chahalem Cultural Center, testimony to a personal transformation as radical as the journey from blossom to bottle.
London born and raised, Chitty is a self-professed “left-brain-centric guy.” He loved math, science and engineering; earned a physics degree then a post-graduate qualification in particle physics. He started dabbling in software engineering and, without formal training, became a finance tech guru whose work took him from the City of London to Wall Street. Chitty modestly describes his job of crafting the systems that make the capitalist world go round as “interesting, intellectually…. If there was a violation of a rule, I would take apart what happened then explain it to a roomful of lawyers so they could report to regulators.”
Wall Street is a “funny place,” according to Chitty. “It has an amazing gravity. I was looking for a reason to leave, but it never came up.” Then his wife was offered a job in Seattle. The family, which included three-year-old twins, grabbed the rope and swung out over the proverbial swimming hole.
Almost overnight, the forensic data scientist became a stay-at-home dad. Chitty, unassuming in a Northwest-meets-tech uniform of white tee-shirt and black North Face fleece, smiles: “I started to get this voice in my head [telling me to] get into personal creativity. In retrospect, a series of earlier events was telling me this, but I didn’t hear at the time.”
So he “went off and did a bunch of things” including ceramics and jewelry making. Chitty had always liked photography and the technical aspect of cameras; he started “intentionally taking pictures.” While backpacking in Wyoming he had a “sort of epiphany” and decided to start photographing craftspeople he knew. “I was developing a deeper appreciation of craft and the dedication and love people put into stuff they make. I was never that good [at crafts] and was amazed by the energy of the people who taught me. I figured by combining the two, I would gain more access. People would be willing to share their story.”
Chitty began photographing artisans, including his ceramics teacher, a jewelry maker, a collage artist and a craft brewer. Then the family went to Indonesia for a year, three months of which Chitty spent as a rice farmer. He kept snapping as he learned to plow behind a cow, plant rice seed, and tend the shoots. Something clicked. The one-day shoots were wonderful but immersion, participation, documenting something over time, struck a deeper chord. Where could he do more of it?
Wine-making was “high on the list” and Chitty connected with a couple of wineries, one of which was A to Z Wineworks. He pitched an idea to co-founder Deb Hatcher: he would work the 2019 harvest then “pivot into photography.”
“I remember sitting in Deb’s office, describing my vision of a series of black-and-white environmental portraits of people making wine. Stark, high contrast, lots of black. All identical in presentation. They would celebrate the hands-on, messy, gritty parts of wine-making.”
The images hanging at Chahalem Cultural Center burst with color and motion: arms heaving, steam billowing, juice gushing. What happened?
“There are so many answers to that,” Chitty grins. “There is revisiting the same scene over and over and over again; the transition from black-and-white to color; themes emerging from a subject matter perspective; themes emerging from a composition perspective.”
This is a characteristic set-up. Chitty does not answer questions, he parses them, reflects, restates and analyzes; the resonance with his artistic method is apparent.
As he worked alongside A to Z Wineworks’ crew Chitty “started to become interested in the people, rather than the process.” He stops himself, retracts: “No, that’s not true. I started to become as interested in the people as the process. I came into the project because I was interested in the artisanal process of making wine…. One change over the year was becoming more interested in celebrating the people behind the scenes who do all the hard work. For every winemaker there is an army of people cleaning the barrels, driving the forklift, sorting the grapes. I became interested in shining a light on these unsung heroes.”
Interest is the bait, luring Chitty into a restructuring, reconsidering his artistic intentions. After planning to hang the exhibition in black and white he printed two sets of the chosen photos and laid the monochrome and color side by side. What leapt out, in color, were the people: “The workers are wearing hi-vis vests that stand out. The background is metal tanks and gray walls and windows looking out to clouds. Everything was gray except this splash of color. I became fond of the way that hi-vis drew attention to the person in the image. It did a good job of drawing the viewer’s eyes to what the person is doing with their hands.”
This served Chitty’s purpose of showing that “for every glass of wine there is an army of workers working hard, physically, to get that wine to the next stage.”
Hard, physical work was integral to Chitty’s own practice. As part of the crew working harvest he put in 12-14 hour days picking, carrying, sorting, hauling. “People don’t realize what goes into making wine,” he notes. “They don’t know who does the work. I gained such respect for the workers’ ability to, day in and day out, to apply so much care and attention to physical, repetitive, tasks. Every day, these invisible people they put passion into every iteration of what they do.”
Chitty, of course, knows a great deal about repetitive tasks, precision, work that requires unswerving attention to detail; it’s what engineers do. Tugged by the gravity of his training and experience he found the images that “kept coming to the surface” in the ongoing process of curation had a “strong left-brain influence: symmetries, repetitions, patterns, precision… a strong geometry.”
In the second half of the residency, he began to highlight compositions with prominent patterns and geometric elements, defined features. “I wanted to honor that part of me, not leave it behind.”
Embracing his love of engineering, data and structure was a perhaps indispensable part of celebrating the winery workers. Respect and appreciation of craft must be rooted in appreciation of all its forms. Chitty’s work as an artist-in-residence was an affirmation of the value of repetitive, behind-the-scenes labor. “I value wine in a way I never valued it before,” he says. “I never understood how much hard work goes into making it. Now I know what’s involved there is a much deeper respect for its value.”
Chitty hopes that people who see his photos will experience a similar epiphany. “I want people to understand how much work goes into a wine bottle, and to see this group of amazing people who put in so much effort, care and attention into its quality.”
Photos, like wine, take time and effort to get right. Getting the perfect shot “might be the 25th visit to a place, or waiting hours for a thing to happen. It takes time to produce something of quality. Wine and art, if made well and with intention, have lasting value. They are things you want to keep.”
There is “quite deliberately” no fresh project on the horizon yet. “You need time and space to make precise decisions,” Chitty says. “When I give myself time and space, I can hear ideas more clearly. You can’t hear what the universe is trying to tell you if you’re too busy.”
Whatever come next, Chitty will approach it with a deeper understanding of himself, his medium and his values: “I would love if my next project were long-form and involved me being a participant and an observer. It gives me the thrill of being creative and the relationships and context that then informs the photography.”
- Exhibition: Transformations: A to Z Wineworks’ Artist in Residence – A Year in Review
- Website: Artisanal Photo
- Chitty on LinkedIn
- Then and Now: A to Z Wineworks