If you’re ever fortunate enough to visit the indigo-dyers of Sakon Nakhon, in the Isan region of north-east Thailand, you might be met at the provincial airport by Gypsy Janpengpen, the youngest son of an indigo-dyeing dynasty. I am accustomed to being greeted at airport Arrival terminals by drivers or guides holding a board or sheet of paper bearing my carefully-printed name. At Sakon Nakhon airport, I was expecting to find the same thing and I did spot Gypsy immediately in the waiting crowd, although he had a much more distinctive means of identification.
It seemed entirely appropriate that Gypsy would arrive wearing the product of his labours. Resplendent from head to feet in clothes of the deepest, royal blue, Gypsy was quite obviously the man I was looking for.
There’s something intrinsically noble about indigo, the sixth colour of the rainbow. Design experts tell us that shades of indigo suggest the qualities of “trust, truthfulness and stability.” Perhaps that’s partly why it came to be known as “Royal Blue” in Elizabethan England, where laws dictated that only Royalty and Nobility were legally entitled to wear the colour. When renaissance painters wanted to illustrate the purity of the Virgin Mary, she was often depicted wearing indigo.
Many have tried to synthetically replicate the colour obtained from the indigo plant (Indigofera Tinctoria) but none have been able to accurately render the unique blue with its subtle colour variations. Indigo shades are dictated by the acidity of the soil, the prevailing climate and inconsistencies in the very labour-intensive manufacture process. Dyes vary, much like fine wines, and growers develop a keen ability to bring precise changes to the recipe in order to obtain a specific hue.
When she was sixty-five years old, Gypsy’s grandmother, Mae Tita, rejuvenated the traditional indigo-dyeing techniques taught to her as a child. Now eighty-two, she leaves the day-to-day management of the process in Gypsy’s capable hands, although he still calls on her expertise when looking for advice about how to fine-tune a particular batch. She’s even been known to suggest improvements to the fermenting indigo by taste alone, evidence that indigo-dyeing is an entirely natural process.
Plantations near Gypsy’s home are burgeoning with luxuriant, green indigo foliage. The plants are tender and won’t stand the indelicacies of chemical pesticides so must be carefully tended, before reaching their full potential at harvest time.
Once picked, Indigo leaves are soaked in rain water for twenty-four hours before being mashed by hand with a woven bamboo “som” or fork, to bring out the initial colour. The ashes of burned banana roots and coconut husks are added, along with tamarind and mango. It’s a process that wouldn’t seem out of place in a traditional Thai cookery recipe.
Through a process of natural oxidisation, carefully managed by Gypsy and his co-workers, the mixture ferments in pots until it is deemed ready for dyeing. Cotton and linen yarns are dyed and left to hang on fences outside the homes in the local community.
Gypsy introduces me to several neighbours, each of whom have waves of indigo yarn drying outside their homes. Inside, where the shade offers protection from the Thai heat and humidity, we find wooden hand-looms with deep-blue lines of Indigo yarn stretched across the frames. The looms are operated by foot peddles and a traditional, wooden shuttle transports the yarn back and forth, creating an intricate weave.
The finished textiles are undeniably beautiful and there’s something reassuringly homely about a product which has been created through an entirely natural process. Made with the love and patient attention that only a dedicated artisan can provide, Gypsy’s indigo textiles are highly sought-after and I’m pleased to be able to carry home my own indigo scarf, which still carries the agreeable, earthy aroma of indigo; a gentle reminder of a place where tradition and natural processes are still respected and valued above all else.
On a technical note, this is the first assignment that I've shot exclusively with Leica gear. I used my Leica M (240) with 28mm f/2, 50mm f/2 and 90mm f/2 lenses.
Using the manual-focus, rangefinder Leica is more challenging in some respects than working with a DSLR but it also has some significant advantages. Most obviously, the Leica is much smaller and lighter. I also find it much less obtrusive and I feel that people return to their normal patterns of behaviour more quickly than when I use the DLSR. Sometimes, lifting a DSLR to my eye feels like sounding an alert, "Hey! It's photo time!" That doesn't seem to happen as much with the Leica although I firmly believe that the camera isn't nearly as instrumental as the person behind it when it comes to fitting in and allowing people to feel comfortable. It's just an observation of a subtle difference in how people respond.
Finally, the image quality really is excellent and although I doubted that I would really notice a big difference between the Leica and Canon 5D MKIII files, I certainly can. Having said that, it's worth repeating that camera gear is never more than a tool. A camera won't choose perspectives for you, it won't fine-tune compositions, it won't build rapport with your subjects, find the best light or make a decent cup of tea. Only photographers can do those things.
If you're in the mood for a puzzle, one of the images above was taken with a Canon 5D MKIII and an 85mm f/1.2 lens, all the rest were taken with Leica. Can you see any difference? There's a prize for anybody who leaves a comment below explaining why it's obvious which image was taken with the DSLR.