British photographic history

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Photographer Ian Beasley has brought together a collection of mostly unseen and unpublished images of 19th, 20th and 21th century industrial Britain for a new exhibition of photographs at the People’s History Museum (PHM), from 6 February-14 August 2016.

Grafters depicts how the camera has captured Britain’s industrial workers. The photographs Beesley has discovered reveal the changing and challenging relationship between photographer and subject. At times workers were reduced to mere Units of Scale, instructed to stand next to industrial machinery to demonstrate its size. At other times the working class were elevated to heroes, symbolic representations of their entire class.   Latterly workers became the photographers themselves, directing and shooting pictures of their own lives, seen through their own lens.

The story begins with the early adopters of this new technology in the mid-1800s, it was aligned to drawing and painting; a scientific continuation of traditional image making; the prerogative of wealthy gentlemen amateurs who sought out the picturesque romantic and classical.  The brutal industrialisation that that surrounded them had no place in their new image making process and largely accounts for the failure of early photography to capture the emergence of the working class.

The photographs clearly demonstrate that images that happen to include workers, is entirely accidental or incidental. The tens of thousand of workers who built the industrial might of the Victorian age often only appear as blurs, distractions and intrusions.

The exhibition goes on to look at the way workers later become a convenient and familiar unit of scale in commercial pictures of steam engines, industrial processes, machinery and buildings; and how in the late 18th Century, images of industrial landscapes saw machines of the industrial revolution become the ‘eye catchers’ in the landscape.

Workforce group photographs also feature as part of this photographic story, military-style line up pictures that become more predominant as the industrial workforce was seen as comparable to that of a military force during WW1, as well as being a patriotic reminder to women as to where their duty lay.  This leads into the heroic realism imagery associated with the propaganda art of the USSR and Germany in the 1930s, that was adopted by Western democracies to promote their aims during the Second World War and continuing into the 1950s in Great Britain to support the rebuilding of Britain.

Grafters also documents the rise in workers recording their own working lives, from the perspective of the insider giving way to a whole new era of social documentary photography.  Then as British industry went into decline, it examines the trend for photographers to journey to the gritty North for their bleak post industrial ruins, contributing to this stereotypical image of the North.

Chris Burgess, curator at The People’s History Museum says, “When Ian suggested this exhibition to PHM we were excited. At its heart is the worker, but what the worker actually represents changes throughout the images on show. Initially we saw the exhibition as one of history, charting working lives in a Britain that now seems distant. However, on seeing the exhibition it quickly becomes apparent that Grafters is so much more than a memorial to industrial life, it offers an evolutionary record of working life. The exhibition’s most recently taken photograph is from 18 December, 2016 of the last shift from Kellingley, the last deep pit in the UK. With the final death of coal mining, and seemingly ever more redundancies in steel industry, Grafters questions what the term work and pride in it means in 21st century Britain.

To accompany the exhibition’s images, the museum has commissioned a series of new poems from writer, poet and broadcaster; Ian McMillan, creating a voice for the unknown people featured in the photographs as they go about their daily work.

Selected from important photographic archives across the North of England, many of the photographs represented are unknown or unnamed and will have never been exhibited before.  

Grafters: Industrial Society in Image and Word opens on 6 February-14 August 2016 and is free entry

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