Why the industrial landscape?

Broken windows. Caved in roofs. Rust and decay. 

Smoke billowing from chimneys. Pipework. Cooling towers and eyesores.

What is the attraction of photographing the dirty, ugly, polluting eyesores that scar our landscape and towns? And why do photographers find 'ruin porn' so irresistible?

This website is a mix of both urbex and industrial landscape, which is why the strapline to my talks and exhibitions is 'Exploring the industrial north', which took longer to dream up than you might think, but nicely captures what my body of work (and this website) is all about.

But what's wrong with the natural landscape? Nothing, and I do enjoy a walk with my camera on the Lancashire moorland that I can see from my house. But it's not my primary interest photographically as I have a genuine interest in the urban and industrial landscape.

Allow me to indulge in a spot of personal history, it may help to provide some context. I grew up in Bolton, a large industrial town, in the shadow of its bigger, noisier neighbour, Manchester. Like many northern industrial towns, by the 1980's Bolton had lost much of its traditional industries - the last coal mines had gone in the 1960's, the textile industry was devastated in the late 50's and had been on a long slow decline ever since, and the large engineering works and foundries, of which there were many, were closed, closing, or were a shadow of their former selves. 

As the town's old Victorian mills slowly succumbed to the swinging demolition balls, and to local hero Fred Dibnah's chimney felling methods, I became fascinated by the town's industrial past, and particularly in the crumbling, semi-derelict old bleach works near my house in the northern suburbs. 

Despite, or maybe because of the town's industrial past, I pursued my interest in engineering and studied it to degree level in another big industrial town, Coventry. I again become fascinated by the industrial past of the city renown for its car industry and other metal bashing, before starting my career in manufacturing. Since then, I have spent my career in several different industries and my current 'day job' (I'm not a professional photographer) has taken me into industrial facilities all over Britain, as well as Europe and America. 

Although I spend my working life in factories, the industrial landscape has never lost its fascination but photographing it has only been something I started doing seriously after I bought a digital camera in 2002. I've had a lifelong interest in photography, but I really started to do more of it once my career was under way. Since then, I have developed a style of photography that is a blend of interpretation and documentary. Most of my photographs are presented in monochrome as I feel this is the best way of articulating the way I see and feel about the subject matter.

You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.
-Ansel Adams

Partly this is pathos. It saddens me that the foundation of our industrial base has been destroyed and thousands of highly skilled jobs have been lost forever. I've been fortunate to have been constantly employed during the 20+ years of my career, but have often been one or two steps ahead of redundancy announcements and factory closures. Maybe it will catch up with me before my career is over - we'll see.

Partly it is because it is there to make a record of - but maybe not for much longer. As I describe elsewhere, it's actually getting harder to photograph as it is rapidly disappearing, or at least the scenes worthy of photographing are. Sure, there are small industrial units everywhere, but that's not what I want to photograph - aesthetically it's less interesting and although there may be some future project in photographing a before and after series, or a social comment on new build generic business parks, they don;t interest me.

I'm not blind to the way that industry often ravage resources, pollutes our environment and exploits workers. But that's not what my pictures are about - there are a great many people looking at them from that perspective (Edward Burtynsky is a great place to start).

My perspective then is 360 degrees. I'm on the outside looking in and, and also inside looking out. As a worker, I'm watching the industrial landscape around me shrinking, as a resident of the industrial north I'm watching the landscape evolve into something new and as a photographer, I'm trying to interpret these changes through the medium of photography.

Ultimately though, I don't have an agenda. This is less of a project than it is a long term body of work. Blame my lack of art school education, but this boundless wandering is more than an academic exercise, or a passing whimsy, and I can imagine a point in the future, my ageing body and failing eyes watching as Lancashire's last chimney is torn down. I'll be there, with whatever image recording device we will be using in the future, and that will close the body of work!

The Life Magazine Formula for Visual Variety in the Photo-Essay Part 2

In my previous post on this, I covered how I adapted the formula for documenting buildings. This time, I will demonstrate it in a human interest story with an industrial twist. It's something I've also used in wedding photography (yes, I shoot the occasional wedding, with not a single factory in sight!) which really does lend itself to a storytelling approach once you get beyond the traditional group shots of bride and groom and family, etc.

I spent a full day in a small Lancashire foundry documenting the work of Keith, a foundryman who had spent nearly 50 years in foundries. The green sand casting process is a very sequential process whereby there is a definite beginning, middle and end, which in itself makes a chronological storytelling approach both easy and essential. At the end of the working day, the job of casting is complete, and the following day sees the fettling (where sprues are ground off) and any other finishing work done.

As this is a one man enterprise, there are only two elements  - Keith, and the process of casting. Any incorrect photo captions are due to my faulty memory, not Keith's inaccurate description of what he was doing!

For this, I used my two Nikon bodies - a D810 with 24-70 F2.8 and a D700 with 16-35 F4 and both were generally wide open as light was at a premium. Both cameras were set to auto-ISO and the ISO ranged between 1250 and 10000. I also popped on a 70-200 F4 for a few shots.

OK, so it's not exactly Eugene Smith's 'Country Doctor' essay (https://timeline.com/life-american-country-doctor-9434632e1134), but I hope it illustrates the principles.

1] Introductory or overall - usually a wide angle or aerial shot that establishes the scene.

The start of the day - the first mould box is complete and the second one is underway. This is the entire foundry - the room at the top right is a small kitchen area, the room at the top left is for fettling. I used a 16-35mm lens (on full frame) at 16mm to fit it all in.

The start of the day - the first mould box is complete and the second one is underway. This is the entire foundry - the room at the top right is a small kitchen area, the room at the top left is for fettling. I used a 16-35mm lens (on full frame) at 16mm to fit it all in.

2] Medium - focuses on one activity or one group.

Loading the moulding box with the 'green' sand (which is black).

Loading the moulding box with the 'green' sand (which is black).

Using the bellows to blow the limestone dust into the mould cavity. This acts as a release agent but also fills in the tiny gaps between the sand partciels ato give a better surface finish.

Using the bellows to blow the limestone dust into the mould cavity. This acts as a release agent but also fills in the tiny gaps between the sand partciels ato give a better surface finish.

3] Close Up - zeroes in on one element, like a person's hands or an intricate detail of a building.

Tools of the trade.

Tools of the trade.

The furnace and ladles.

The furnace and ladles.

Steam venting from the casting boxes as they cool.

Steam venting from the casting boxes as they cool.

4] Portrait - usually either a dramatic, tight head shot or a person in his or her environmental setting.

Pouring the molten aluminium into the moulds.

Pouring the molten aluminium into the moulds.

Time for a brew.

Time for a brew.

5] Interaction - people conversing or in action.

The only other person in the foundry was me, and I was taking photographs so there wasn't any opportunity to get one of people convesring, and almost all the pictures are of Keith in action, but this one uses a slowed shutter speed to capture the movement of Keith's boot as he tramples the sand into the box.

The only other person in the foundry was me, and I was taking photographs so there wasn't any opportunity to get one of people convesring, and almost all the pictures are of Keith in action, but this one uses a slowed shutter speed to capture the movement of Keith's boot as he tramples the sand into the box.

6] Signature - summarizes the situation with all the key storytelling elements in one photo - often called the decisive moment.

Given the sequential nature of the process, it's hard to capture one image that encapsulates the full day in one image. This is the closest I could get - I wanted to capture as much of the environment as I could without going either too wide or too long so although I again used the 16-35, it was at 22mm when I made this exposure. In this we see Keith removing the castings from the boxes, which although set solid, are still hot and still cooling. In many respects this captures many elements of the story - the view of the foundry with the raw material in the background, the finished products being removed from the boxes, the boxes waiting to be emptied in the foreground and Keith, wrapped in steam in a bent over stance, which is how he spends much of his day, either shovelling, lifting boxes or castings, etc. It's physically hard work and I think that this shows in this image.

Given the sequential nature of the process, it's hard to capture one image that encapsulates the full day in one image. This is the closest I could get - I wanted to capture as much of the environment as I could without going either too wide or too long so although I again used the 16-35, it was at 22mm when I made this exposure. In this we see Keith removing the castings from the boxes, which although set solid, are still hot and still cooling. In many respects this captures many elements of the story - the view of the foundry with the raw material in the background, the finished products being removed from the boxes, the boxes waiting to be emptied in the foreground and Keith, wrapped in steam in a bent over stance, which is how he spends much of his day, either shovelling, lifting boxes or castings, etc. It's physically hard work and I think that this shows in this image.

7] Sequence - a how-to, before and after, or a series with a beginning, middle and end (the sequence gives the essay a sense of action).

So as the entire set is really a sequence of the casting process, I'll zero in on the transformation of aluminium billet into finished castings. Here, .Keith is loading the heated furnace with fresh aluminium.

So as the entire set is really a sequence of the casting process, I'll zero in on the transformation of aluminium billet into finished castings. Here, .Keith is loading the heated furnace with fresh aluminium.

Some time later, the aluminium is in a molted state and is poured into the moulds.

Some time later, the aluminium is in a molted state and is poured into the moulds.

Once cooled enough to have solidified, the castings are removed from the moulding boxes.

Once cooled enough to have solidified, the castings are removed from the moulding boxes.

After being left to cool in the sand, a tap with a hammer releases the remaining sand and they are moved across the foundry into a pile ready for fettling.

After being left to cool in the sand, a tap with a hammer releases the remaining sand and they are moved across the foundry into a pile ready for fettling.

8] Clincher - a closer that would end the story.

The end of the day. The sand has been 'thrown', watered, and now is being covered up to keep the moisture in.

The end of the day. The sand has been 'thrown', watered, and now is being covered up to keep the moisture in.

Links

http://www.mechanicallandscapes.com/writing/2016/10/10/the-life-magazine-formula-for-visual-variety-in-the-photo-essay

https://timeline.com/life-american-country-doctor-9434632e1134

 

On having something to say (but not knowing what it is, or how to say it)

I'm largely self educated in photography*, and while I don't regard that as any kind of badge of honour, it is a double edged sword. On the one hand I've been able to focus my limited time on a field I enjoy, without being distracted with stuff I have no interest in. I've been able to build a body of work in my own time with no deadline or agenda. On the flip side I've missed out on skills such as critical thinking and working on projects that have more of an agenda or idea behind them than 'shooting mongy old mills and stuff'.

I was once asked what my photography is about. I found that hard to answer. It's about lots of things, and nothing in particular, all at the same time. Partly I allow the viewer to put their own interpretation on the work, but I can't hide behind this when I describe my work as an interpretation of what I see. An interpretation surely is taking something and converting it into something else? So the process of conversion is this nebulous mental act on the part of the photographer that visually overlays their own prejudices on the image.
To that end it's hard to succinctly articulate what my work is about. If pushed, I'd say it's a combination of the following:

  • A survey of the remains of the Industrial Age as we transition into something else.
  • An expression of sadness at the destruction of ways of life and industries that influenced the creation of Great Britain as the world's first superpower (especially as I work in manufacturing and rely on it for my livelihood).
  • An extension of my curiosity at the way the urban and industrial landscape is constantly in transition.

Maybe photography has to be 'about' something to be taken seriously. Thankfully as I'm working to my own agenda, and without a customer, academic oversight or much of an audience, I can afford to indulge in what may appear to be superficial frivolity to the more serious minded.

Or maybe that's just an excuse.........?

 

*I say largely - I've got a city and guilds I did at night school.

 

The Art of Industry

Eagley Mills, Bolton. Two of these mills are still standing, I watched the others being demolished from the windows of my classroom in the old Eagley schoolhouse in the late 80's (the stone building just above the mill on the far right.

Eagley Mills, Bolton. Two of these mills are still standing, I watched the others being demolished from the windows of my classroom in the old Eagley schoolhouse in the late 80's (the stone building just above the mill on the far right.

Although my medium is photography, the industrial landscape has been portrayed by painters since the start of the industrial revolution. Often this has been a glorification of the factories and industries, presumably because the wealthy industrialists were paying for the paintings. 

Illustrators were probably somewhat busier than the artists though. Pretty much every enterprise had an impressive, hugely exaggerated image of their works created for use on their letterheads and other correspondence, while idealised, paintings of their mills would have adorned the company offices and boardrooms (something I still see today in some companies, but it's normally an aerial photograph).

Looking through my book collection, I found a number of examples from my hometown of Bolton, and further examples have been found on the internet. I'm not qualified to offer analysis or critique, just examples of the genre.

Sunnyside Mills, Bolton. I photographed the tower on the right hand side in 2016, just before it was demolished in 2016.

Sunnyside Mills, Bolton. I photographed the tower on the right hand side in 2016, just before it was demolished in 2016.

Atlas Works, Bolton, one of the last wrought ironworks in the country when it closed in the early 80's. This is a typical illustration of that era which greatly exaggerates the size of the place.

But beyond the commissioned illustrators who produced somewhat romanticised versions of reality, actual artists were at work also. Staying in Bolton, a painting I know from my childhood is 'Bolton From Queen's Park'. There are several versions online, and I can't remember which is the most accurate rendition, but I'll go with this one. Bolton was a typical mill town, although larger than most and home to over a hundred cotton mills, bleachers, dyers, foundries, engineering works, and until the 1920's, a steelworks not far from the Town Hall. This landscape was a veritable forest of chimneys which Samuel Towers depicted from Queen's Park. Like many northern towns, the skies only cleared during the annual wakes week holidays when the factories shut down and the fires in the boilers and furnaces were extinguished as the townsfolk headed to the coast and countryside for their holidays (if they were lucky!)

Bolton From Queen's Park, Samuel Towers (1862-1943)

Bolton From Queen's Park, Samuel Towers (1862-1943)

Of interest in this particular context is Edwin Butler Bayliss, an artist from a wealthy manufacturing family in the west midlands who left the family business in his twenties to pursue an artistic career. His inspirations was the bleak industrial landscapes around the area known as the Black Country near the Tipton area of Birmingham.

Tipping the Slag, Edwin Butler Bayliss (1874-1950)

Tipping the Slag, Edwin Butler Bayliss (1874-1950)

Maybe the best known exponent of the genre is the Mancunian artist LS Lowry. While not strictly studies of the industrial landscape, his impressions of northern life very much featured the industrial landscape of northern England as a backdrop. These landscapes were not intended to be accurate, they were composite, impressionistic, representations of Lancashire and Manchester that Lowry witnessed on his rounds during his day job as a rent collector. Despite the almost childlike simplicity of the paintings, Lowry had been educated in art by the impressionist Adolphe Valette at the Manchester School of Art. However, it was while he was studying at the Royal Technical College in Salford that his interest in the industrial landscape developed.

"I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I tried to paint it. All the time I tried to paint the industrial scene as well as I could. It wasn't easy. I wanted to get a certain effect on the canvas. I couldn't describe it, but I knew when I'd got it. Well, a camera could have done the scene straight off. That was no use to me - I wanted to get an industrial scene and be satisfied with the picture"

It's with this that I can empathise. While the Lancastrian industrial 'scene' is now vastly different to that of the 1920's, that desire to record it in a way that says something personal to you is something I am deeply familiar with, even if my medium is the camera and not the brush, paint and canvas. Actually, the bigger challenge now is often finding some industrial landscape. Most of our urban landscape is now more likely to be a retail landscape or a distribution landscape - the visual differences between identikit portal frame sheds are often barely perceptible to the human eye, and certainly not interesting to photograph (although I do have a few project ideas that capitalise on this generic blandness).

 

A River Bank, LS Lowry

 

 

On websites

My other website www.theviewfromthenorth.org has been online since 2007. I don't know why I had a sudden desire to have a website, it just seemed like a good idea at the time. Since then, there have been a few iterations in the design as Photium (the hosting service I use, and highly recommend) have made improvements, but it's fundamentally the same. 

What I've found - and bear with me in this analogy - is that a website is like a garden. You lay it out, and plan and arrange things. You plant seeds and it grows as you publicise it and word gets round. You must feed and nourish it by adding new content and refreshing older work (I reworked almost every image on the site in 2016). You trim and prune, removing older images and galleries that were not getting looked at. You may even move house and start again, as I did with this website when I moved from Zenfolio to Squarespace. OK so maybe not the best analogy in the world, but you get my drift! The important thing though, like anything else worth investing your time in, is to stick with it.

I've got a whole heap of benefits from my website. I'm not famous, and I'm in a tiny niche within a niche within a niche, but it's given me a name that goes before me to an extent. I meet people who have seen my work online or in exhibitions, but don't know me. As a direct result of contact made through the websites, I've made friends with people who have contacted me, sold prints, sold pictures for use in magazines and books, been commissioned to take photographs, sold my self published books, been asked to do talks, and doubtless other stuff I've forgotten about.

But one of the less tangible, and unforeseen benefits has been the credibility it gives. Having an online presence not only showcases your work, it says something else - that you are an expert in your field. This of course presumes that your online body of work is coherent and of a high standard - my recommendation would be to NOT have a gallery of sunsets, a gallery of airshow pictures, a gallery of landscapes and a gallery of cats on the same website - put them all on Flickr and just choose one genre to dedicate your website to, or maybe a few if they are closely linked (e.g. portraits and weddings, football and rugby, landscape and nature, etc).

This can be leveraged. An example of this would be gaining access to places, either with or without permission is one of the biggest challenges in my photography. As I've increasingly moved away from climbing over fences and through broken windows to see places, I've sought permission to see places. If via email, I will send a link to the website for the recipient to look at to show that I approach things in a sympathetic way and I'm interested in the place itself. It doesn't always work, of course, but then finding access to a sealed up site isn't always successful either.

I deliberately didn't use my name in the URL. I wanted to separate myself from my photography. I've never regretted that. I've now kind of turned it into a brand of sorts, although that wasn't the intention back in 2007 - I'd just seen too many terrible pictures online with a crap watermark stating "copyright Joe bloggs photography" across them.

On the subject of watermarks - above you will see my own. I think they look OK, but there again, I designed them and I have no background in design apart from a GCSE I did in 1990. But watermarks are a bit of a contentious subject - some are so intrusive as to ruin the image, some look good, and some people think they're a waste of time as they don't prevent image theft. My perspective is that I don't watermark to prevent image theft (if I was so concerned about it, I wouldn't put images on the web), rather, I put them there to show who took the photo and provide a link back to my website. In an age of one click sharing of images, this is far more important, in my eyes. 

(Fun fact - theviewfromthenorth.com wasn't available so I went for .org not realising that it was meant for voluntary organisations. It was only later did I realise that the .com website was owned by the company of the same name - the one who made the Fred Dibnah TV documentary programs.)

Of course, I've had some right chancers contact me, as well as some very random requests - see below for a selection (contact details have been redacted!)