Photography is almost as old as the Industrial Revolution. Industrial photographers are able to find images of great beauty and symmetry in the unlikeliest of settings. Here we show some of the best examples from the North Lanarkshire Photographic Collection along with illustrations of how they were used.
The photos you see here were taken for a variety of purposes, including manufacturers’ catalogues and other publications. People rarely appear in the commercial photographs and when they do they are usually dwarfed by the machinery they operate or produce. The images celebrate technology, modernity and awesome scale. How truthful they are about day to day reality is left for you to decide.
Since it’s early days the new medium of photography had struggled for legitimacy. This led photographers to try and copy the style of paintings, giving birth in the 1860s to a style known as Pictorialism. Such photographs avoided sharp details and instead aimed for a Romantic fuzziness. The style continued well into the 1900s, T Johnstone’s dramatic view of Motherwell, ‘Silver Linings’ being a good example of how such images put mood before detail.
By the late 1920s a new aesthetic had replaced pictorialism in Western photography. The new modernist approach saw photography as distinct from painting and celebrated its ability to faithfully document the newly-industrialised societies of North America and Europe. Pioneers like Lewis Hine in the United States had used photography to record working people’s jobs and lives while improvements in film and lens technology increased sharpness and made it possible to obtain high-quality pictures from small film formats like 35mm.
This ability to record fine detail and sharp edges perfectly suited the industrial age with its sharp lines, geometric patterns and repetition.
The photograph below shows a damaged piece, presumably the result of either an accident or a test.
Another strand of industrial photography was showing how products were made and how an firm was organised. Sometimes such pictures were taken for advertising, with company brochures demonstrating to potential clients the high standards of their facilities and processes. In other cases, such as a remarkable early 1900s set of photographs of ironmaking at the Coltness Iron Works the reason is unclear.
The staff magazine for Colvilles, the Motherwell-based steel company are full of wonderful modernist photography.
A notable feature in the mid-1950s was a series of environmental portraits of employees by the Liverpool-based portrait photographer Adolf Morath. Morath had been commissioned to photograph Britain’s steel industry.
On the British Photographic History blog Gilly Read FRPS recently recalled working as Morath’s assistant in the 1960s:
For his industrial work he set up two 5″x4″ cameras side by side but with different focal length of lenses. He opened the shutter of one camera and then the other camera shutter was fired triggering the flash, so he got two images for one set of flashbulbs PF 60’s and PF100’s were very expensive. I would then have to remove the dead bulbs ready for the next shot. Sometimes if we were photographing a very long view in a factory I would have to set up the lighting stands and because they were over a long distance one set would have to be triggered separately. There was a testing facilly on the firing box to make sure that the circuit was OK. I remember being terrified that I would accidently fire the bulbs before the shot was to be taken. Miraculously I never did.