These Photographs Capture Estonia’s Handcraft Masters

“I always liked going to artisans’ studios to see what they are doing there. It’s like a magical world to me and the artisans are the magicians.”
– Heikki Leis

Clocksmiths, magicians, luthiers – Estonia is home to artists and artisans of very special kinds. But in an ever-globalising world, these crafts are slowly dying out. Estonian photographer and drawing artist Heikki Leis has a close connection to these compatriots of his and decided to capture them with his camera for his new book: Estonian Master.

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Loola Liivat, painter


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Sille Sikmann, shoe designer


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Arne Zekker, forensic pathologist


Heikki believes it is necessary to highlight those with special capabilities that are slowly becoming extinct in the modern age. Fittingly using analogue photography, he documented the working hands and expressions of 33 masters of their craft. By doing this, Heikki also aims to honour what he learned while speaking to his subjects: “The conversations solidified the old truth that if you want to do something very well, you have to practice it for many years.”

In our interview, Heikki explains his fascination for artisans and illustrates the special attitude of Estonia’s people.

THE PLUS: What inspired you to take pictures of these artists?
Heikki Leis:
I have always liked going to artists’ and artisans’ studios to see what they are doing there. It’s like a magical world to me and the artisans are the magicians. And of course, we should honour the artisans and value their work more. It is always a pleasure to watch and capture a working person.

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Agur Ints, carpenter


TP: What fascinates you about handcraft in general?
For these different subjects, it is just how long the masters have learned and perfected their profession to achieve this level. I believe that everybody likes the handcrafted and often low-circulation items more than the Chinese mass production. Many professions are also quietly disappearing and machines and robots are taking over these jobs, so they have to be highlighted.

TP: Was there an artist or an experience during the making of Estonian Master that particularly stuck in your mind?
Quite a few were surprising. The most memorable was probably capturing the work of a surgeon and a pathologist since these people’s work is something one does not get to observe often first-hand. There were also a lot of great conversations with the masters about their lives and work. It solidified the old truth that if you want to do something very well, you have to practice it for many years. Mastering something does not come quickly.

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Mart Eller, surgeon


TP: What was your idea behind going with the style of film photography?
It seemed right to record this series on film. The image on film is somewhat more honest and clearer with all its colours, graininess and depth of field. The analogue photography is also a disappearing art form with the digital photo pressing in through each door. I had these films developed in a photo lab, but developing one’s own black and white films would definitely be considered a craft. I have a limited number of frames while shooting on film, and this makes me more focused on each shot, which can often also be seen in the final result.

TP: Tell us about the characteristics of the Estonian people and artists.
The Estonians can appear more reserved and humble than the people of the Nordic countries tend to be. They also seem to be very hard-working and industrious. Many may not open up at the first meeting, but it is all the more enjoyable to finally get on the same wavelength and to try to understand them. In this series, I also paid great attention to the hands of the craftsmen, as their most important tools and hands can be very meaningful.

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Jarmo Nuutre, sign painter


TP: You created a book for this project. What where your thoughts behind making a book for Estonian Master, and how did you experience this process?
The idea of a book came to me at an early stage of this project. I realized that I would like to show more pictures of each artist and they would not fit into an exhibition. Since the Republic of Estonia celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, the book was my gift to Estonia. Any lengthy creative process is a good experience. Publishing a photo book requires a lot of work and communication, and later also marketing, and I did not really have much experience with it before.

TP: Time plays an important role in your work, also in your projects Post-truth eraChronovores or Memories. What fascinates you about time?
Time is a rather abstract concept for me, but also very playful and thought-provoking. Time has often been the subject for philosophers and artists for centuries. Unconsciously it has also crept into my own work.

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Tiiu Kirsipuu, sculptor


TP: Are you a history-lover?
Not really, but I do like photos and films depicting the old times, especially the way people and interiors looked. Everything seems more stylish than nowadays, and all the items seem much more valued than they do today. Sometimes I dream that I would indeed like to travel back in time and capture it with my own camera!

TP: Looking into the future, what can we look forward to seeing from you?
I am not in the middle of any bigger photo projects currently, but I am always thinking and collecting ideas. Some smaller projects are in operation and I believe they will be visible soon. However, next year I will show my new series of drawings AVIVA, on which I have been working for the last four or five years. It consists of large circular hyper-realistic drawings, and is a more playful series where some drawings extend out of the frames and continue as real objects into the gallery.

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Merlin Tammeleht, car mechanic


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Tanel Veenre, jeweller


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Edward von Lõngus, graffiti artist


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Liisi Roht, makeup artist


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Heino Kalm, tooth fairy


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Helen Heinroos, hair stylist


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Johan Tralla, clocksmith


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Piret Veski, potter


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Ivo Lill, glass artist


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Ants Uustalu, chef


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Ervin Juht, butcher


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Taivo Piller, florist


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Peeter Allik, linolcut artist


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Karl Eelmaa, magician


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Stella Soomlais, leather designer


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Terje Kiho, doll maker


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Andrus Hämäläinen, luthier


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Karl Annus, eyeglass frame designer


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Urmas Pikhof, tailor


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Mihkel Kõrv, gunsmith


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Ivar Feldmann, blacksmith


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Ott Koppa, taxidermist


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Mico Goldobin, tattoo artist


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Terje Lillmaa, textile artist


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Eero Mander, brewer


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Priit Pärn, animator