New Look at Industry

New Look at Industry

Maurice Broomfield

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New Look at Industry - © Maurice Broomfield

New Look at Industry - © Maurice Broomfield

Maurice Broomfield - New Look at Industry

  • 2007
  • Exhibition (photographs)
  • Location: Science Museum Arts Projects gallery, first floor (no longer on display)

In 2007, Science Museum Arts Projects presented Maurice Broomfield's New Look at Industry, an extraordinary exhibition of photographs demonstrating a proudly modern vision of Britain at work in the 1950s and 1960s.

Broomfield presented his own very particular view of Britain at work. His images transformed old factories and grimy workshops into clean, stylised stages. Just as Christian Dior created a 'New Look' for fashion in 1947 - voluptuous silhouettes as a post-war antidote to the years of wartime frugality - Broomfield proposed to offer a 'New Look' for industry, making it 'as glamorous as fashion'. Yet he saw the fashion business as fleeting and slightly absurd when contrasted with the real work of heavy industry.

His innovative lighting techniques and careful staging created images of lasting interest and beauty. His interest in form is balanced by an interest in workers and work - he would visit factories weeks before shooting not only to plan but also to allow his subjects to become used to having him around. This helped in achieving shots of people genuinely at work, involved in their own task rather than merely posed.

The photographs are not art for art's sake. Broomfield wanted nothing more than to promote his clients and their products with a bold vision of modern industry. The post-war era is often described as one of decline for British manufacturing. In fact, industrial labour reached a peak in the 1950s when manufacturing employed nearly 1 in 5 workers. Companies promoted the many steps in their manufacturing processes and the importance of human labour to signify the quality of their products.

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About the artist

Maurice Broomfield (born 1919) left school at 15 to work in a factory and spent his evenings as a student in the Derby College of Art. Inspired by the drama of industry, he endeavoured to convey this atmosphere with photographs and sketches, bringing an insight to those who would never experience such things.

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Exhibition essay by Colin Harding, Curator of Photographic Technology, National Media Museum

Maurice Broomfield's New Look at Industry offers a historical perspective on industrial photography. Photography was an invention of the industrial age and photographs of industry can be traced back to the earliest days of the medium when Britain was the 'workshop of the world'. Maurice Broomfield's captured scenes of British industry in the 1950s bring his own particular view into a tradition of industrial photography that had evolved over the previous hundred years.

In the 1800s, photography rapidly became the principal means of recording and celebrating the products and achievements of British industry. Regardless of debates regarding its status as 'art' or 'science', its speed, convenience and all-embracing verisimilitude meant that it was soon recognised and utilised as an ideal recording medium.

Early 'documentary' uses recorded evidence of industrial progress and tended to concentrate on prestigious construction, engineering or civil engineering projects. Unlike in Broomfield's carefully staged compositions, individual workers were frequently excluded from such photographs or, if they were included, appear almost incidentally as part of the production process rather than as individuals. Emphasis was on the products of their labour rather than on the labourers themselves. A significant exception is the 'heroic' portrayal of the designer or inventor, such as Robert Howlett's iconic 1857 portrait of I K Brunel. Photographs such as these have a function beyond the utilitarian and hint at industrial photography's broader, and later to be realised, potential as an opinion-former.

The end of the 1800s saw dramatic developments in photographic technology alongside substantial changes within the structure of industry itself. Craft-based manufacture was replaced by mass production and small-scale local enterprises gave way to international corporations. Industrial photography was then able to grow and diversify, and developed as a specialised tool in both research and manufacture. Techniques such as radiography, high-speed and stroboscopic photography are now used to reveal and record what is invisible to the naked eye. Less easily categorised are industrial photographs that become a means of illustrating and communicating aspects of industrial activity to different audiences - employees, investors, consumers and the general public. The links with other branches of the medium - portraiture, photojournalism, still life, advertising photography - are fundamental. Broomfield brings to his images a mastery of many of these different disciplines.

Stylistically, Broomfield was heavily influenced by the 1920s evolving aesthetic Neue Sachlichkeit ('New Objectivity'), which emerged in Germany as an alternative to the reactionary, anti-modernist aesthetic of 'pictorialism'. New Objectivity emphasised sharp focus, strong composition, unusual camera angles and dramatic use of lighting. Its modern, avant-garde aesthetic was deemed to be ideally suited to advertising, architectural and industrial subjects. In 1934, an ambitious young German photographer, Walter Nurnberg, arrived in Britain with a portfolio of prints taken in the New Objectivity style. A prolific writer on both technique and style, he was to influence a generation of industrial photographers, including his friend Maurice Broomfield.

Broomfield's influences, however, are not purely photographic. His first love is painting, and his bold use of chiaroscuro clearly owes as much to artists such as Joseph Wright as to the stylistic tenets of New Objectivity. Broomfield's photographs are very carefully composed, and often convey a sense of narrative and dramatic tension. He was one of the first industrial photographers to work extensively in colour as well as black and white, and his considered use of colour creates interest and atmospheric effect.

Broomfield, along with most industrial photographers before him, has a profound belief in the benefits of industrial progress and shares with them a desire to reflect this in his work. He fully understands the potential of photography to shape perceptions and in the 1950s and 1960s consciously sought to present a bold vision of modern British industry - one that would sell Britain to potential investors at a time when the country most needed them.

Above all, what is evident in Broomfield's work is his ability to empathise with his subjects. He spent time with these people, getting to know them and what they did. These are not anonymous slaves of the industrial machine but individuals endowed with the dignity and nobility of labour. He has been described as 'an old-fashioned humanist' and claims to enjoy photographing people at work: '...the many experiences whilst doing this have enriched my life. To be living on this planet is, to me, the greatest gift possible.'

Colin Harding, Curator of Photographic Technology, National Media Museum

'This exhibition is an informative and stylish insight into the jobs of the people who helped to make Britain great.' - Johnny Wilson, 24hourmuseum.com

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