Barbara Griffin: Several years ago you completed your phenomenal project, The Balkan Dispatches. A beautiful body of work that documents a great adventure. Did you have any idea at that time that you would undertake another epic journey? (*Click here for Barbara’s interview with Nick in SxSE about The Balkan Dispatches)
Nick Dantona: That project opened me up to a new way of creating a body of work. I don’t often work against the concepts of serials, but that was an eye-opener for me. So, yes, after The Balkan Dispatches were completed I knew I wanted to try at least one more. To see if the first one wasn’t a fluke.
BG: (laughs) Well, I coulda told you that the first one wasn’t a fluke. So talk about how this trip came about, and it started a long time ago. The genesis of it was in a challenge that someone threw down at you.
ND: Forty years ago I was a cameraman for The Edge of Night, the soap opera.
BG: Which is super cool, by the way.
ND: My mother didn’t think so! One of my crewmates introduced me to a childhood friend of his who came from an Ecuadorian family. He said, “the two of you are gonna get along great,”. So this guy comes up from Miami, and I meet him. I think he’s a cool guy, but he brags. He was bragging a lot about his family and the prominence of his family in Ecuador. So I said, “fine, why don’t you take us there?” And he said, “Really? you would go?” “Of course.” So he said, “okay, let’s go in May.”
Forty years ago he took five of us to Ecuador, and he was right. His uncle was the former President; his uncles and relatives were the industrialists of the country. We got to see all parts of Ecuador. It was six guys in a van, and we made a riot. We went to the jungle, we went to the Andes, we went to the beaches, we went all over and saw everything. And along the way, there was this thread, we kept seeing people making straw hats, and that’s when I learned Panama hats are actually made in Ecuador. After the trip, we remained friends; we remained great friends. I’m the godfather to his daughter.
BG: Wow, that is a long-lasting friendship.
ND: We stay in touch. In December of 2017, I called him up, “what are you doing?” He said, “Funny you should call, I just got back from Ecuador.” And I said, “you know, next year will be forty years. Why don’t we go back?” And he immediately said, “Let’s go back in May.” And that’s how this journey began.
BG: And off you go. Did you bring a hat home on your first trip?
ND: I did. I brought two hats home. As it turns out my friend, we’ll call him Bobby, had an import company called Hats and Hammocks. We were kids in our twenties, and he used the proceeds of Hats and Hammocks to pay off his student loan. What I didn’t know was that along all the stops we were making, Bobby was negotiating with some of his suppliers!
BG: So, he’s wheeling and dealing along the way.
ND: He’s wheeling and dealing, and we’re smoking pot and making pictures.
BG: While YOU think you’re on your vacation.
ND: So one of the cool things about this recent trip is that I reprinted a bunch of the photographs I’d taken on the first trip and took them with me. We actually found six of the people that I had photographed forty years ago.
BG: That’s amazing. I don’t remember who I saw last Monday, while you remember people you saw forty years ago. Did you remember things about them or was it a completely new experience?
ND: Well, it was a little bit easier than that. There were two locations in particular. Ecuador has the Ingapirca Ruins, its own version of Machu Picchu. Forty years ago when we were first there it had just been excavated. We’d heard about it and put it on our itinerary. We found it in a small village,11,500 feet up in the Andes mountains. Back then the villagers didn’t see a lot of gringos and even photography may have been somewhat unknown to them. They certainly didn’t have professional cameras or photographs of themselves.
So, I’m making pictures and, of course, what I did back in those days was warm subjects up by making a Polaroid. The same thing would happen all the time. They’d look at this blank square, look at me and go, “what is this?” And I’d slowly walk away knowing what was about to happen, and begin the countdown…three, two, one. And you hear the screams of delight!
ND: So, getting back to this trip. I knew that I’d made photographs of kids in the village of Ingapirca, so let’s bring those photographs and go back. It’s not like I remembered the people, and I wouldn’t recognize them anyway. They would be in their 40’s, 50’s, or 60’s now. But it’s a small village – maybe we’d stand a chance. We found four of the people there.
BG: That’s amazing.
ND: You should’ve seen the look on their faces, Barbara, because they didn’t have photographs of themselves as kids. So word gets around, and the whole village shows up. The children and the grandchildren are grabbing the pictures and rubbing them on their cheeks and kissing them. They’ve never seen a picture of their mother, or their grandmother, as a child. It was something so precious to them and, of course, something we take for granted.
BG: That’s why I talk a lot about and think a lot about the idea of photography as a gift. A gift you give yourself by having an experience like that, by being able to provide that experience for somebody. And a gift that you give to them to have an experience that they would never have had. You gave them a little piece of their childhood. That’s the extraordinary power of photography and the gift that it is.
ND: That’s so true, and it differentiates us from painters. I love paintings, I love painted portraits. But a photographic portrait freezes that moment in time. You can look at a portrait that’s painted, and admire it, “wow, that’s a great painting. But when you look at a portrait of yourself from a photograph, that moment comes back to you.
BG: Yes, you can see yourself or your subjects forty years ago and the photograph instantly brings the sights, sounds, feelings of that moment back in an instant.
ND: Oh yeah.
BG: It’s a marker of time.
ND: What came as a surprise to me was how emotional the experience was, both for them and for us. Each time we found one of the six people, we all broke down in tears. Isn’t that great?
BG: It’s fantastic.
ND: I don’t know what happened when Steve McCurry went to Afghanistan and found the Afghan girl again, but I’ll bet it was emotional; it certainly was for us. Fantastic. So, you’re right. You’re so right, Barbara, such a gift.
BG: So, you’ve accepted the challenge, you’re off on this Ecuadorian journey, revisiting places you visited forty years ago. And you’re making connections with the places and the people. How does the hat come into the story?
ND: Right. When we decided to go back to Ecuador in May of 2018 I started researching. And I came across a book called “The Panama Hat Trail” by Tom Miller, written in 1983. We were there in ’78, he was there in ’83, but he had visited just about every place we’d visited.
When you’re a photographer you just go, and allow the place to present itself to you. But, as a writer, he went to see if there was something to reveal. What he found was the impact that the Panama hat – which is made in Ecuador – had on the Ecuadorian people. We found, upon returning 40 years later, as he had, that it had made a profound effect: economically, socially, politically, and even with their religion.
BG: That’s an astonishing thing to say about a hat.
ND: Right. Who would think? I actually contacted Mr. Miller and asked for contacts and his permission; he was very gracious. But, here’s how something as simple as a hat can have an impact. In the mid-nineteenth century, an Ecuadorian fellow by the name of Eloy Alfaro got into the hat business, the straw-hat business. And he moved his distribution from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Panama.
At the time, the California gold strike was happening. Many Americans traveled through Panama on their way to California and purchased the hats there. If you’re gonna go out into the sun of California, you need a hat.
BG: And not a warm hat.
ND: People in California would go, “Great hat, where’d you get it?” Answer: Panama. Therefore, the Panama hat. Anyway, Eloy Alfaro makes a fortune selling these hats, and he uses the money to fund his political party. He becomes the President of Ecuador.
BG: All on the strength of a hat?
ND: All on the strength of the money that he makes from his hat business! He uses his presidency to create what became known as the Liberal Revolution. At the time, the Catholic Church had an iron grip on the society and government of Ecuador; Eloy Alfaro was looking more towards France and the United States, separation of Church and State. And said, “We need to loosen the grip a little bit.”
So, politically, it had an impact. Economically, he was selling hundreds of thousands of hats, which created a workforce and became a significant part of the country’s gross national product. And, because he needed more workers, women joined the workforce. So that had a social impact as well.
BG: What time period is this?
ND: The Liberal Revolution began in 1895. Ironically, Bobby’s great-great-grandfather lost the presidency of the country to Manuel Eloy Alfar in the election because he didn’t want to loosen the grip of the Catholic Church.
BG: Yes, it’s a much bigger, more important story. Do you see the book, and I’m loosely calling it a book at this point, as two stories or is it one integrated story? The Hat and Forty Years Ago? Or, is it one story about the trips and your experience of Ecuador?
ND: I think if I were to be honest with you, Barbara, I would have to say it’s two stories that I put in one box. I think if someone were to look at the work like you did, and know the story, they would know that a piece of my heart was with the Ecuadorians.
BG: Without a doubt.
ND: Things, like women joining the workforce, were happening at a whisper forty years ago. When we returned, and I started making portraits of these women, it was much louder than a whisper. They were involved in every aspect of the Panama Hat trail. They were the CEOs of hat companies, engineers, designers, teachers, and they led cooperatives and associations. If I didn’t have the context from being there forty years ago, I wouldn’t know how special this was.
BG: You photographed some beautiful details of the making of the hats, the makers, and the materials. Talk about those just a little bit.
ND: Every Panama hat is made by hand. No machine makes them. It begins with a straw plant that grows wild in the jungle.
BG: That’s surprising in this day and age.
ND: When we started, I was expecting plantations, farms. Hey, here’s my straw farm.
BG: With hats growing out of the ground. (laughs).
ND: I’m expecting a plantation. And, instead, it’s Juan with a machete, and a mule, and we just head into the jungle. And he starts machete-ing stalks of straw. The whole process is still very organic.
BG: I was going to say it sounds organic; it’s very DIY in some ways.
ND: Absolutely, and there are a lot of moving pieces to it. The finest Panama hats, in my opinion, are made in a town called Pilé, where they control the whole process. They grow their own straw, peel their own straw, boil it, dry it, then assess the quality of it. They begin to weave it, smoke it for color, then weave the hat itself, block it, shape it, band it, and finally box it.
BG: That sounds like an elaborate process.
ND: They do everything. So, documenting the whole process gave us the ability to answer a couple of questions we brought along with us. There are movie stars who pay $20,000 for a Panama hat – and those are the really expensive ones. So, one of our questions was: if some movie star’s paying 20,000 bucks for a hat, why does this poor Ecuadorian woman only get 12 bucks?
BG: And some of these hats can take up to eight months or more to make.
ND: Some over a year. We were there, and we were going to right this wrong. Or expose this wrong, and it turns out it’s a complicated puzzle. There are really no bad actors. It’s a flawed process when you think about it if you’re looking through the lens of pay equality. It’s a bit of a flawed process and an extensive supply chain from jungle to Hat Store on Rodeo Drive. Everyone needs to take their cut and pay their expenses. It’s a tough fix.
BG: It’s impressive for something that carefully handmade to become so hugely successful, and I’m sure that the supply chain putting it out into the world takes a considerable effort.
ND: Exactly. The person who has the hat shop on Rodeo Drive is probably paying an extraordinary amount for rent, so everybody’s got their piece of it. It costs money to ship twenty-five thousand hats to LA, whatever the number. It’s complicated. The economics can get better, although there are not a lot of strenuous complaints. They’re doing things to try and make it better; for instance, local villages are forming their own cooperatives so they can negotiate from a stronger position than an individual weaver.
BG: How do you judge the quality of a Panama hat? How do you know you’re looking the real deal?
ND: I‘m not an expert. I mean, I learned a bit. But toward the top end of the supply chain, it’s stitch per square inch, the pattern used, the quality of the straw, the coloring. Coloring of Panama hats is very important, there are hats that are colored uniformly by bleaching them. The more expensive ones are literally put in a wooden smoker with sulfur, and there’s a person, usually a woman, who’s lighting the fire, putting sulfur on it and running away so she doesn’t breathe in the sulfur smoke. And the hat has been smoked if you will, a particular cream color.
BG: The colors are so pure and beautiful. Your photograph of the hat from above, the round bowl of that hat, is exquisite. The lighting of that picture is so gorgeous, and to see the detail in the patterning and the weaving is impressive. It just looks expensive.
ND: Yes! Specific patterns are signatures too. There are certain areas of Ecuador that weave in a certain pattern, so anybody with some insight into the patterns of the hats would know, ‘Oh! that came from Cuenca; that came from the coast; that came from Montecristi, that’s how they weave it from the Manabí region’. There are signatures.
BG: And, as you’re traveling, going to these different cities, did you see different aspects of the process?
ND: Yes. One town that we went to happens to be called Barcelona, Ecuador. All they do is peel and boil. And dry. And then it’s put on a truck or a cart, and sent off…
BG: To the next town…
ND: Right. They actually work out a cooperative and I have several photos of that process in the book. It’s an ancient, huge cauldron that a guy stirs with a stick and a lot of wood and fire boils the straw. And the particular day we visited there happened to be a jefe, big guy, a boss, from probably a hat company, for negotiation with that particular shipment.
BG: I was delighted the first time you asked me to meet you at the High Museum for lunch. And then you surprised me with the beautifully crafted Balkan Dispatches, your previous book. And then, to find myself, I don’t know, is it three years later?
BG: Being invited again and seeing another beautiful book, I didn’t think it was possible to go beyond what you’d done before. Then, when I saw BULTOS I was amazed at how much further you’d taken every aspect of the book: the images, the attention to detail, the craftsmanship. The first book, and I’ll call it a book although I actually consider them more as boxed experiences, was so interactive. Once again, you worked with a phenomenal book bindery artist in what’s clearly an amazing collaborative effort.
ND: Well first of all, I want to acknowledge the mastery of Britt Statig, she’s a fine art book bindery artist, and more. Her pedigree is so above my station that it’s just an honor to work with her. Part of what she considers her job is to understand the vision of the artist and manifest that, experientially. Which is an eye-opener for a photographer like myself who really thinks how once I’ve made the print, I’m done. Or maybe framed it. Or maybe put it in a book.
BG: Or an exhibition.
ND: Or put it in an exhibition, yes. The Balkan Dispatches was an eye-opener to me because she translated something in my head that I hadn’t even articulated. BULTOS was a much more complicated project because there were more moving parts and more content. Even though The Balkan Dispatches was done in five countries and BULTOS is only done in Ecuador, there were many more photographs to express what the Panama Hat Trail was. And then there was the underlying story of going back forty years later.
BG: And it’s very personal because of your relationship with Bobby, and your interaction with all of the people.
ND: What I told Britt when we began to meet for the pre-production of the book was that when I was a kid growing up in the Bronx two things struck me about there being a bigger world outside. One, of course, was the National Geographic magazine.
BG: Of course.
ND: Of course, and it’s like wow. The whole world doesn’t look like the Bronx (laughs). This is great! And the second thing was, and I don’t know how I came across it, but it was Darwin’s notebooks. I was fascinated about how you could put diagrams, data, illustrations together to create a three-dimensional picture of what he experienced, ironically, coincidentally, on Galapagos Islands which are a part of Ecuador.That was what I went to Britt with, Right off the bat she said, “Nicky this is gonna be a friggin’ bruiser”.
ND: And it turns out…
BG: She’s not from the Bronx?
ND: No, she’s from Connecticut. She turned BULTOS into five notebooks with handmade cover sheets using rice papers, and the straw I brought back from Ecuador.
But then, what do you do with the second story, Forty Years Later? Well, she created a false bottom, so if you bought this thing you might never know there’s a second story hidden beneath it. But if you poke around the box, you’ll find the hidden tab that reveals the false bottom, and then a sixth notebook comes up.
BG: I love how interactive the book is, and that there are also letters and the accordion-style display of images. How did those come to be?
ND: Well, like with The Balkan Dispatches, I write on these adventures daily. It’s more about keeping track, keeping a record of what I’m doing.
ND: So, they’re two separate artistic endeavors. I’m not writing a narrative that I photograph against. And I’m not photographing to the narrative. During the day, I make pictures and at night I write my observations. A separate narrative emerges.
ND: So, I handed Britt 109 finished prints. And she made a prototype, and it was large enough to bury a small animal in.
ND: We said, “This is just too big of a box.” So we went back to the drawing board. And we came up with sequences.
So, each notebook has three components:
First is this accordion sequence. This shows not necessarily a mechanical process, but the people and the process of that particular village.
The second component is an abstract from the journal. And I put it in an Air Mail envelope and printed the excerpt on onion skin paper. When I was a kid my parents would write to their people in Italy and, back in the day, you sent everything airmail, and you sent it in thin envelopes written on onion skin paper, so it didn’t weigh much. We would receive mail from Italy, from our relatives, and I remember seeing the excitement in my parents when they would open up these Air Mail letters. So I wanted that.
BG: There’s something so intimate about the letters. It feels like you’re privy to something, it’s a cool thing.
ND: The airmail envelopes are almost iconic. You know there’s something special in there. So, there’s that excitement.
The third component of the Notebook, which is brilliant on Britt’s part, includes what I call hero shots. That are slightly larger than 8x10s. And mostly portraits of the people. I said to Britt that I want the owners of these books to be able to liberate these prints from the notebook in case they want to frame one for a while. Put it up on a wall, and then take it down and put it back in the notebook. So, she came up with this brass screw system. You can unscrew the clasps, liberate whatever prints you want from it, and do what you please, frame them, whatever, and then reinsert them. Genius.
BG: It’s really extraordinary, your collaboration. It must feel fantastic.
ND: Oh, yeah. It’s been a real gift.
BG: In the edition of twelve, do you have a sense of “I keep wanting it to be available” in some larger way? I know you wouldn’t be able to have the same experience of this as an art piece if you made it just a regular book. But there’s so much to share out of these, do you have any sense or desire to make it either one of them?
ND: I do. I wanna make both books, BULTOS and The Balkan Dispatches, into editions that are more accessible. These treasure chests that Britt and I created are not very practical. They’re very expensive to make, and they’re expensive to buy. So, they’re limited.
BG: Like an exquisite Panama hat.
ND: Right! (laughs)
BG: What is the meaning of BULTOS?
ND: BULTOS is the 50-kilo bundle of newly cut straw that is bundled, and carried on your shoulder out of the jungle. So, it’s a bundle of straw, a 110-pound bundle of straw.
BG: And the book is a bundle of five Notebooks. (laughs).
BG: Nick, that is amazing. You guys really thought of everything, and thought it through. It’s exquisitely beautiful as an art piece, as an experience, as a book, as a BULTOS.
ND: Thank you.
BG: I do hope more people will see it.
ND: My hope is that libraries or universities will buy these and make them accessible to the public, student body, researchers.
BG: Is there a next epic adventure in your mind?
ND: Yes. Russia.
BG: I can’t wait to see what you come back with! So, in three years we’ll meet at the High for lunch?
ND: Yes, (laughs), well, we could meet at the high for lunch anytime, but hopefully in three years, I’ll have another book.
BG: Knowing you, there will definitely be another adventure and another book. Thanks, Nick!
I use photography and the written word to create an ethnographic depiction of cultures and social characteristics. These travels enable an immersion with people that may be overlooked, forgotten, misrepresented or marginalized as a result of their economic status, cultural beliefs, ethnicity, race or gender. The texts and images are separate creative enterprises allowing a more three dimensional understanding of the subject rather than a visual storyboard to a narrative. The words are not captions to the pictures.
I make photographs as a quest for authenticity and a plea for the rediscovery of connection.
I make photographs in pursuit of love and the Divine Source of Love.
As an artist and as a man I make this statement: Love is the answer.