Atmospheric photos show a lost world of British industry

If you were the kind of person who read heavy industry magazines in the 1950s-80s, chances are the photos inside were taken by one man, Maurice Broomfield.

Broomfield broke the mold of how photographs of modern industry should be composed, away from bland photos of empty factories and close-ups of machinery, and with dramatic artistic photos, often including the hard-working people. in the factories. Men in front of hot ovens, women inspecting aircraft engine fans, grand vistas of oil rigs, Broomfield had an eye for turning machinery into something beautiful.

Maurice Broomfield was born in 1916 to a working class family, living in a small village near Derby, and received his first camera as a child. His parents wanted him to become an office worker, but he ended up working at the nearby Rolls-Royce factory. In his spare time he studied design and art, graduating with first class honours. He moved to Rowntree and used his photography skills to work in the marketing department doing product close-ups, while exhibiting in local art galleries.

After the war, he settled down as an art painter, not a photographer, but some of his personal photos taken in Europe during the war appeared in a series of advertisements, and they caught the attention of ICI which wanted someone to photograph their factories. and make educational films.

They wanted classic factory photos, however, and Broomfield had to fight hard to be allowed to take close-ups of factory workers. He was right of course, and factory photography has never looked back.

Some of his photos barely show the factory as he skillfully used darkness to show an aspect often overlooked by previous photographers. His famous Tapping a Furnace taken in 1954 at Ford’s Dagenham factory shows a small figure dwarfed by the factory tending to a lava flow of molten steel emerging from the furnace.

It manages to turn heavy industry into something that clearly shows the hard work that goes on and the often hostile environment people work in, but one that makes it feel noble, uplifting, even exciting. He spent the next 30 years cataloging British industry until its decline in the 1980s, recording a world that no longer exists, of manual labor before the rise of robots and automated factories.

The exhibit fills one of the V&A’s two photography galleries and combines large photos on the walls, with smaller details of his work, such as the magazine covers he often overlooked, collections of his negatives and notes on the set.

It’s really very beautiful and wonderful to see old magazine covers enlarged to such a monumental scale as the factories they show.

The exhibition, Maurice Broomfield: Industrial Sublime is at the V&A Museum until November 6, 2022, and is free to visit. The exhibition is in room 101 (yes, really!), on the second floor of the museum, not far from the sculpture rooms. You no longer need to book tickets to visit the V&A Museum.

If this happens again, there is a documentary on Maurice Broomfield on iPlayer.

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