Grafters: Industrial Society in Image and Word

Lizzie Labres, (Assistant Curator, Area East) agreed to write this post, linked to the Exhibition currently on the Bradford Industrial Museum.

She writes:

At Bradford Industrial Museum, we have spent the last few years working to improve and promote Bradford Museums and Galleries photographic archive The archive consists of around 500,000 photographic negatives, lantern slides and photographic prints and records a wide and interesting period of Bradford’s social and industrial history.

Back in 2014 Ian Beesley, working with the Peoples History Museum, approached the archive to see if we would be willing to loan some images from our collection. The images were to be displayed as part of a new photographic exhibition documenting the working lives of people across the North of England. We were very keen and happy to be involved and, as the exhibition developed, we realised this would be a great exhibition for the Industrial Museum. PHM agreed to loan the exhibition to the Industrial Museum and the result is the fantastic exhibition now on display in our temporary gallery.

Grafters: Industrial Society in Image and Word. Img: date and photographer unknown, Peoples History Museum.
Grafters: Industrial Society in Image and Word.  date and photographer unknown, Peoples History Museum.

Grafter : British Slang. work; labour.

The exhibition seeks to highlight the representation of workers in photography throughout the industrial revolution and beyond. It showcases photographs loaned from museums and archives from industrial towns and cities across the north of England, including Bradford’s own photographic archive. The exhibition explores the changing relationship between the image, the worker and the landscape, with poetry by Ian McMillan giving voice to the workers depicted in these images.

The exhibition is broken down in to 8 sections exploring photography of the working classes through portraiture, industrialisation, beginnings of photography, unit of scale, self-representation, the heroic, the workforce and the industrial landscape.

The invention of photography was announced on the 1st of January 1839. In the early days of photography, images taken simply to show the lives of the working classes were rare. Their appearance in photographs was usually incidental. Portrait photography, although cheaper than painted portraits, was mainly the preserve of the wealthier classes. However some interested photographers and hobbyists were keen to capture the newly emerging industrial worker. They were brought in to studios to be photographed, with the images often then sold as collectable items to interested Victorian collectors. Victorian Industrialists were also keen to capture the developments and revolutions in technology. Photographers were commissioned to photograph the rapidly developing industrial might of Britain, accidentally capturing the workers.

The tens of thousands of workers who built the industrial might of the Victorian age often appear as blurs, distractions and intrusions.

Lister Mill chimney, early 20th century, date unknown
Lister Mill chimney, early 20th century, date unknown

In the early 1840s some photographers considered photography a scientific continuation of fine art, however many considered it a scientific and technological tool. Photography became an important industrial invention and was used as a method to accurately record the changing industrial landscape and rapidly changing industrial technologies. By the 1870s a new professional class of photographers had emerged and by the end of the 19th century, with improvements in photographic equipment, development and printing, the use of photography for commercial and corporate purposes had grown. Photographs were now regularly used by newspapers and in printed advertisements. Nothing compared to photography when it came to capturing the Industrial Revolution.

As Britain’s society changed and photographic equipment became cheaper and more portable, it enabled workers to capture their own lives for the first time. These photographs provided a new perspective on working class life and pushed the boundaries of social documentary photography. One such photograph was Jack Hulme who photographed the pit village of Fryston, West Yorkshire, producing a unique record of a mining community. Mass observation projects conducted in large industrial towns and cities, throughout the 20th century, also recorded the working and social life of the working classes both in photography and spoken word. These projects highlighted the largely unseen hard work carried out by the workers and the need for social reforms.

Vulcan Foundry, Sheffield, 1984, Tim Smith, Bradford Museums and Galleries BHRU collection
Vulcan Foundry, Sheffield, 1984, Tim Smith,
Bradford Museums and Galleries BHRU collection

By the 1930’s the working classes began to represent a need for social, industrial and democratic change. Workers began to be idealised as heroic images of industry and hard work. Heroic realism, a style of propaganda art used primarily in the Soviet Union and German, embraced photography as the best way to represent the ‘heroic’ worker. This method of photography was used during WW2 to promote Western democratic aims and continued to be used throughout the 50’s in the rebuilding of industry and industrial nationalisation.

Land girl 1940, P G Hennell, Ian Beesley Collection
Land girl 1940, P G Hennell, Ian Beesley Collection

The working classes portrayed in these photographs went from incidental objects, to heroic representations of industry, they highlighted industrial progress and the conquest of the industries themselves. When we now look at these images, we don’t necessarily know why the photograph was taken, but we might think more about the content and who the people are. The images, along with the poetry, hope to inspire our visitors to think about the people in these images and their role in the development of industry, technology, towns and cities and Britain as a whole.

Four generations of my family have grafted in the foundries and mills of the North. After leaving school I worked in a mill, a foundry and sewage works.
It was my fellow workers who encouraged me to find a profession and I found photography.
I started photographing where I worked and who I worked with.
I soon became aware of a ‘gap’ between the photographs of industry that were exhibited or published and what I saw and experienced as an industrial worker.
This exhibition is an attempt to understand some of the reasons for this ‘gap’, but it is also a eulogy to all those men and women who worked so hard in so many of our now depleted industries. Ian Beesley

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