Never-ending Labour: The Rise and Rise of Industrial Photography
Since its invention in the early 19th century, photography became another achievement of the human mind and hands, a means of capturing moments of real life, in a completely different way to a painting or a description with words.
The earliest examples of photography, where an image is fixed, are as early as 1826 by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce, later developed by his associate Louis Daguerre, who presented the Daguerreotype photographs, which became widely used in the 1840s and 1850s.
Artists had entered into the age of photography, the age of technology and advancements for both functional and artistic uses.
At times these two were combined to create photographs that documented yet at the same time served a purpose as another way to view society and artistic interpretation.
West & Waddell, View of oil wells.
THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
As photography grew in parallel to the advent of the industrial revolution, this tool could now be used to document, celebrate, and at the same time, denounce or capture the realities of the world of labour.
The industrial revolution, which was seen as a large turning point in history, is associated with the change to an economy dominated by industry and machine manufacturing.
This period saw a significant rise in population, improved living standards, and finally the capitalist economy which we recognise today.
History dates the industrial revolution taking place between 1780 and 1840. Starting in the UK with the invention of the steam engine, machines then began to substitute humans with faster and cheaper production.
This period saw several advantages; however, not everyone benefited from these innovations and sudden changes.
Many workplaces did not offer satisfactory working conditions, often long hours, and little pay, and even children were employed instead of going to school.
As more and more people were drawn to the cities for work opportunities in new, large factories, this led to more families living in cramped homes and on the edge of poverty, in cities where pollution began to discolour the sky and homes.
A unique market emerged from industrial photography during the industrial revolution, where people would be interested in detailed images of steam engines, machinery, industrial processes, and the buildings in which all of this activity occurred.
From the recording of processes, machinery and result, industrial photography grew as a useful tool to incorporate commercial and corporate aspects, such as advertising and catalogues.
Workers began to be photographed alongside examples of machinery as a measure of scale.
For these types of photographs, the photographers often remained anonymous as the work was commissioned by a factory or a company to document the work that was being done, perhaps to celebrate the end of a project – or to entice new clients.
Photography took off as a way to make a living.
According to the US Census of 1880, roughly 9,990 people worked as a photographer, and this number grew to 27,000 by 1900.
Industrial photography can also be linked to propaganda images, scenes of the loyal farmer working the land, a woman working with textiles, and each person contributing to the country’s needs.
This was especially the case during the Second World War and in the aftermath of the war, with industrialisation growing on a larger scale and the need to rebuild.
Photography from 1911 catalogue by Th. Mann & Co., Bielefeld
Industrial photography however is not limited in its subject matter, to solely factory floors and steel structures or even to the period of the industrial revolution.
Industrial photography captures moments that are linked to the world of labour, from the daily commute to the office to the uniform needed to carry out a task, from the invention of new machinery to the faces of immigrant labourers.
This genre of photography continues to evolve in its technology, with how the photographs are made, to also the evolution of the subject matter itself as the world of work continues to change.
Dorothea Lange, 1939
KEY FIGURES OF THE INDUSTRIAL PHOTOGRAPHY IN HISTORY
Originally trained as a sociologist, Lewis Hine (1874-1949) went to Ellis Island in 1905 to photograph the immigrants who were arriving by boat to America, and not only that, he also continued to photograph these immigrants in their homes and at work.
Due to his academic past, Hine used photography as a tool of documentation to better understand how these people were living and show the reality of their hardships to society.
Later employed by National Child Labour Committee, which sought to regulate and outlaw child labour, Hine began to document the working conditions of factories, mills, and mines, wherever children would be forced to work long and dangerous hours.
These images were instrumental in ushering in regulations for workplace conditions and protecting children.
Hine is also known for his photographs Men At Work, showing the construction work of the Empire State Building in the 1930s, which was then the tallest building in the world.
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) is best known for her work as a photojournalist during the Great Depression, a period of economic downturn in the early 1930s in America.
By 1933, when fourteen million people were out of work in America and facing poverty, Lange was employed by the government agency Resettlement Administration to travel the country and photograph the life of farmers and their struggles – as a means to provide aid.
Her photograph, Migrant Mother, shows an intimate portrait of Florence Thompson and two of her children that lean into her as she looks away in deep thought. It became almost an icon of the period.
Lange’s extensive photographs brought attention to the families and workers on both a national and international scale.
Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936 (black and white version)
WILLIAM EUGENE SMITH
Celebrated American photographer William Eugene Smith (1918-1978) established his name as a photojournalist capturing images of World War II for Life magazine.
During the mid-1950s, he was commissioned to photograph the city of Pittsburgh in celebration of the bicentennial of its foundation.
During this period the city was experiencing an economic boom with a rapid growth of the steel industry, the mills, and an influx of new workers. As a consequence, Pittsburgh earned the nickname the City of Steel.
Smith became so infatuated with the city’s development, its relationship with the industrial world, and the factory floor, that the six-week commission turned into an almost three-year personal project with an accumulation of approximately 20,000 negatives.
Jack Delano, South Puerto Rico Sugar Company, 1942
BERND AND HILLA BECHER
Two photographers who met as students, Bernd (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015), began to work together as a collective duo.
Over their long careers, they photographed the German industrial landscape and more precisely the industrial architecture that was beginning to disappear.
With a distinct photographic style, the Bechers would photograph structures, buildings, factories, and homes, in a clean-cut, objective, and repetitive format.
They started with the industries found in the Ruhr valley, which included steel and mining industries.
The Düsseldorf School of Photography refers to several of Bernd’s students during his time teaching from the mid-70s until his death in 1996, who were heavily influenced by the couple’s unique documentary style.
Howard R. Hollem, Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, 1942
CONTEMPORARY INDUSTRIAL PHOTOGRAPHERS
Ukrainian photographer Valeriy Miloserdov (1961) worked as a photojournalist when he first met the striking Donbas miners in the early 1990s.
Originally sent to cover the movement, Miloserdov became intrigued by the communities surrounding the mines and started a four-year project called “Abandoned People” (1994-1999), where he gained the trust of the miners and their families.
Miloserdov photographed not only the moments of protest but also more intimate scenes, such as at the hospital, dinner at home, or even showering after working in the coal mines.
Valeriy Miloserdov, Abandoned People (1994-1999)
A Düsseldorf School of Photography graduate and disciple of the Bechers, Thomas Struth (born 1954) initially studied painting under the guidance of Gerhard Richter.
He has made a name for himself in the world of photography through his large-scale moments analysing human scientific and cultural achievements such as museums and CERN.
Since 2007, Struth has photographed places which would normally be forbidden to the general public, such as laboratories and even NASA’s research campus.
His analytical images break down these unknown worlds, images that at first only communicate with those who are part of those scientific environments.
Sebastião Salgado (born 1944) initially worked for the Ministry of Finance in his home country of Brazil.
However, he was forced to flee when he was considered a political radical for having joined the popular movement against Brazil’s military government in the late 1960s.
He decided to become a freelance photojournalist and went on to capture a variety of key moments, from famine in Niger to an assassination attempt on US president Ronald Reagan.
In regard to industrial photography, Salgado worked on the series Workers, photographing the working class who contribute to the ever-evolving industrial age.
Heavily influenced by the sites and images of a General Motors plant situated in his hometown in Canada, Edward Burtynsky’s (born 1955) photography investigates the impact of human activities on the earth, documenting both the gradual and rapid changes to the earth’s surface.
From large mines in Germany to stacks of plastic waste in Kenya to graveyards of bleached coral reefs, Burtynsky’s largest project titled Anthropocene brings people face to face with the irreversible changes on the landscape, wildlife, and ecosystems.
Often photographed from the air, Burtynsky’s images almost take on a surreal quality.
Alongside the photographic prints, the “Anthropocene” project also oversaw the making of a documentary film of the same name.
Anthropocene is currently on show at Fundación Proa in Buenos Aires until March 2023.
Fondazione MAST. Installation view Anthropocene, 2019
WHERE TO SEE INDUSTRIAL PHOTOGRAPHY?
Fondazione MAST in Bologna, Italy, is a private foundation that, since its opening in 2013, specialises in presenting temporary exhibitions dedicated to the broad world of industrial photography.
Built on the back of an industrial campus of a packaging machinery factory, the foundation’s building is also worth visiting for its architectural design, bordering between modern and brutalist.
Currently on show is the seventh edition of MAST Photography Grant on Industry and Work, a group show of five young photographers whose projects approach industrial photography in their own way.
Morocco-born self-taught photographer Hicham Gardaf, whose project titled “In Praise of Slowness”, was crowned the 2023 winner by the jury.
The project focuses on the street sellers in Gardaf’s hometown of Tangier, and how this type of work is threatened by the fast pace of change.
In addition, MAST organises Foto/Industria, a biennial of industrial photography, with exhibitions held in a variety of spaces around the city of Bologna. The last edition in 2021 included exhibitions by Lorenzo Vitturi, Takashi Homma, Herbert List and Bernard Plossu.
Fondazione MAST. Installation view Image Capital, 2022
Cover Credit: Dorothea Lange
Writer | Glesni Trefor Williams
Glesni Trefor Williams is a Bologna-based art journalist/translator from North Wales, who focuses her writing on contemporary art and interlinked exhibition spaces. She has written for Lampoon, Spinosa Magazine, and is an arts contributor on BBC Wales radio. @glesniw