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Conversations with Creators: Todd Balsley of Clever Supply Co.
A new photo story featuring Louisville's Todd Balsley
Our photo series this week is with Louisville-based photographer and leatherworker Todd Balsley. Starting with the desire to create a wallet for himself, Todd fell in love with the process of creating with his hands and soon found himself in the hand-made leather camera strap industry.
Recently, I visited Todd in his garage workshop to talk about his creative process and his brand, Clever Supply Co. Here are some images from my visit and a glimpse into my conversation with him.
For those who aren’t familiar with you, how would you describe yourself and the work you do?
I’m Todd, a husband, father, and maker. I'm a photographer who turned into a leatherworker. Leather-working has become a truly creative process for me. I enjoy approaching new ideas and bringing them to life in physical form. In this busy and noisy world, I’ve found the quiet and calm I desire with just being alone and working with my hands.
Take us back to the roots of your creative journey.
It all started with me wanting to make wallets for myself, and over time I started making bags and just fell in love with the process of making different things and working with my hands. Being someone who's worked in the tech environment for so long, there's just something satisfying about being able to create something from start to finish with your hands. Even more rewarding is being able to have someone that uses what you create.
“In this busy and noisy world, I’ve found the quiet and calm I desire with just being alone and working with my hands.”
As I fell in love with leather-working, I had this interest and desire to start a brand around it. As a photographer, there was this desire in the back of my head to make a camera strap for myself, so I made one. Then, I ended up making another one for my friend Billy at State Film Lab, and he loved it. Right off the bat, he asked if I could make a bunch for wholesale to sell at his lab, and that was the moment I said to myself, "I want to make more camera straps." I loved the idea of serving the photography community with a product I make.
What do you feel is most unique about your process?
You're buying from someone who is passionate about the industry, someone who has been a part of the industry, and someone who has relationships with people in the industry.
As I started making camera straps, I felt this desire to blend a few different principles. First, is the camera strap had to be comfortable right out of the gate. With leather products typically, it's a thing where you have to break it in, so I chose comfortable leather. The next thing is that it has to look great. You're going to pay a good bit of money for a hand-made leather product anyways, so it has to look good. Unabashedly, there's a fashion element to this that I am 100% ok with. Finally, and this is where I think I differentiate from others, is I have been passionate from the beginning about elevating the user experience.
What’s so valuable about being a photographer who creates products for photographers?
In the beginning, I wanted to make the camera strap that I wanted to wear, and I knew how I'd be using it. I also had the context of what it was like to be on your feet all day shooting a wedding, and so I had a deep, rich experience within the industry to pull from, and then, I also have a lot of relationships with photographers. I have a good friendship with a wedding photographer, and he's been someone who's helped to inform a lot of the decisions I've made over the years, whether it be enhancements or different things I could tweak.
As a small business, where are you sourcing your leather from and how did you know what to look for?
When I first started, I was sourcing from a place called Tandy Leather, and it's essentially a Hobby Lobby for leather-craft workers. Over time, I became familiar with different types of leather.
When you're first getting started, you realizer certain types of leather make sense for certain types of projects - so I had a lot of trial and error. The same leather for a wallet might not be the same leather you want for a camera strap. Now, I source my leather from a tannery in Maine called Acadia. They make a certain type of leather that really works well for the camera straps I make.
What are essentials that you always carry with you or use when creating?
Needles and thread, an edge beveler, a leather-craft knife, and a stitching clamp.
What advice would you share with someone who is early on in their career, aspiring to do what you do?
A camera strap can be very simple, so I would say to start with a simple design, like a strip of leather with two rivets, and then add split rings. Or even start with a leather keychain because that starts to move you in the direction of working with a strap, but it's much smaller in case you make a mistake. Camera straps are not necessarily complex in nature, so start simple and figure out what you like and what you don't like. Then if you're interested in doing it again, figure out ways to iterate and improve.
When considering what it means to leave behind a legacy, what would you say you want your creative legacy to be?
It's important for me to have people view the brand as a brand that makes products for creatives and cares about creatives, particularly about photographers in the creative space. So there's always this desire to give back to the photography community. Essentially, we want the brand to be remembered as a brand that made the photography community a better place. Yeah we sell products, and we sell them to make a living, but we also want photographers to succeed. Whether that's buying prints, sponsoring a project, or commissioning a project, those are all things that are really important to me.