If you were the sort of person to read trade magazines about heavy industry in the 1950s-80s, the chances are that the photos inside were taken by one man, Maurice Broomfield.
Broomfield broke the mould on how photographs of modern industry should be composed, away from bland photos of empty factories and close-ups of machines, and in with dramatic artistic photos, often including the people who did the hard work in the factories. Men in front of hot furnaces, 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 in the nearby Rolls-Royce factory. In his spare time, he studied design and art, graduating with first-class honours. He moved to Rowntree’s and used his photographic skills to work in the marketing department doing close-ups of products, while also exhibiting in local art galleries.
After the war, he set up as a fine 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 eye of ICI who wanted someone to photograph their factories and make educational films.
They wanted classic factory photos though, and Broomfield had to fight hard to be allowed to take close-ups of factory workers. He was right of course, and factory photography never looked back.
Some of his photos hardly show the factory as he cleverly used darkness to show up an aspect often overlooked by previous photographers. His famous Tapping a Furnace taken in 1954 at the Ford factory in Dagenham shows a small figure dwarfed by the factory ministering to a flowing lava of molten steel from the furnace.
He manages to turn heavy industry into something that clearly shows the hard work that’s going on and the often hostile environment that people worked in, but made it noble, uplifting, exciting even. He spent the next 30 years cataloguing British industry until its decline in the 1980s, recording a world that no longer exists, of manual labour before the rise of the robots and automated factory floors.
The exhibition fills one of the V&A’s two photography galleries, and combines large photos on the walls, with smaller details from his work, such as the magazine covers he often dominated to collections of his negatives and notes about the shoot.
It’s really quite beautiful and wonderful to see former magazine covers enlarged to a scale as monumental as the factories they show.
The exhibition, Maurice Broomfield: Industrial Sublime is at the V&A Museum until 6th November 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 it’s ever repeated, there’s a documentary about Maurice Broomfield on iPlayer.