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24 March 2022

How Maurice Broomfield captured Britain at work

The leading postwar industrial photographer created images that are romanticised, unreal and full of respect for hard labour.

By Will Dunn

From the ages of 18 to 20 I worked during the holidays in the factories on Newton Abbot’s Brunel Road industrial estate, on production lines that made potted desserts and plastic components for cars. The work was often mind-numbing but the places themselves were impressive: huge buildings in which giant quantities of stuff were worked upon. I remember shovelling crushed biscuits into a hopper from a wheeled container the size of a hotel bathtub, wheeling massive stainless steel vats of custard and egg through triple-height doors, and climbing up one side of a hulk of hot, vibrating metal to wrench open a valve that unleashed a jet of molten plastic, which landed steaming on the factory floor like the glassy black intestines of something from another world.

In the dessert factory, at 5.50am, we would pull on hairnets and white rubber boots. I had no idea, at the time, that the boots were white because Maurice Broomfield had wanted them to be. On a visit to United Dairies in 1966, Broomfield decided that the standard black boots worn by the factory workers ruined the impression of cleanliness and gleaming technological advancement he wanted to create, so he had them painted white. The dairy agreed that white was better and kept it; a few decades later, white boots were the norm in food factories across the UK.

Broomfield was the leading industrial photographer of the British postwar boom, documenting a rapid progression to a new kind of work, and with it a new kind of society. From the late 1940s until the early 1980s he worked as a commercial photographer, shooting factories, construction sites, technological developments and (above all) workers for company reports and the trade press. From 1954 to 1960 his pictures of industry appeared every week in the Financial Times, taking readers into the engine room of a racing economy.

The pictures span two worlds. Some show the grimy industry of the pre-war era — men ripping wool from sheep’s hides, blowing glass and pouring steel — while others show a new kind of factory, clean and colourful, in which men and women calmly arrange the componentry of the space age. In all his images, however, there is power and plenitude, dignity and the greatest respect for work itself.

Broomfield was born in 1916 and grew up in Draycott, a small village in Derbyshire. His father was both a factory worker and an artist, making munitions during the Great War and then working as a designer in the lace industry. Aged 15, Maurice went to work for Rolls-Royce, operating a turret lathe, making copper tubes for engines. In his spare time he studied at the Derby College of Art, where his work was based on sketches he made of his fellow workers, the factory and its machines. He always wanted to be a painter and was a devotee of another Derby artist, Joseph Wright, who made dramatic images of the industrialisation of the 18th century. Wright’s works An Iron Forge and The Blacksmith’s Shop contain the same elements as Broomfield’s composed and painterly photographs: both show skilled people concentrating on their work, framed by dramatic shadows and lit by the glowing iron of the work itself — industry drawing something new from the darkness.

Tapping a Furnace, Ford, Dagenham, Essex, 1954 © Estate of Maurice Broomfield

The most vivid example of this is Tapping a Furnace, a picture Broomfield took in the Ford factory in Dagenham in 1954. In it, a small human figure is silhouetted against the volcanic light of a river of molten steel. When this picture was taken, the Dagenham plant made cars in their entirety, starting with ore and coke; today, a single component can travel to several countries as it moves along a global supply chain.

Britain in the 1950s was an industrial nation; more than a third of the workforce was employed in manufacturing, which accounted for more than a third of GDP. Half the world’s car exports came from British factories, and domestic demand for goods soared as households ­adopted new technologies — washing machines, televisions, fridges and vacuum cleaners — for the first time. The Second World War had forced a major expansion in British manufacturing and investment in new technologies, and in the years that followed low interest rates meant businesses were able to invest in this opportunity and meet rising consumer demand.

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The companies Broomfield shot were incorporated under the national banner — British Nylon Spinners, English Electric, British Timken, English Sewing Cotton — and took names that bluntly stated their business. No modern company would consider calling itself anything like International Combustion Limited; today, only two companies in the FTSE 100 consider themselves sufficiently British to include it in their names, and most prefer the shelter of almost-words (Capita, Entain, Aviva) that hold meaning at a distance.

Two Men and Four Tanks, Joseph Crosfield, Warrington, 1962 © Estate of Maurice Broomfield

For a 21st-century knowledge worker, it’s tempting to look at the skilled factory workers of the 1950s and 60s and wonder where it all went wrong. There is no mystery in the modern workplace: as the The Office so brilliantly observed, technology’s next steps — reinforced concrete and networked, affordable computing — created a world in which everyone’s workplace is identical, and the pandemic created a world in which many physical workplaces have disappeared altogether.

But like Britain’s own sense of its importance in that gradually globalising world, Broomfield’s pictures were romanticised and unreal. These were not reportage images: Broomfield was employed by the same company as his subjects. He would arrive at the factory with a carload of lights and cameras and would spend hours setting up with the help of three assistants. It was not only boots that were repainted: clothing was altered, light sources were added, ladders or cranes were used to achieve dramatic viewpoints. Sometimes workers were swapped for more photogenic colleagues.

Broomfield was in no way deluded, however. “I sometimes didn’t want to be accurate,” he told the V&A’s senior curator of photographs, Martin Barnes, in 2007. “I wanted to give it a surreal quality, so that people stopped and wondered what was happening in that picture.” In Testing Thermal Insulation, one of a number of promotional images he made for the oil company Shell in 1963, a worker hoses the wall of a barn with a new chemical. Lunging towards its target, wearing what might almost be a space suit and what might almost be a laser pistol, this figure has arrived from the new world to obliterate the old.

Preparing a Warp from Nylon Yarn, British Nylon Spinners, Pontypool, Wales, 1964 © Estate of Maurice Broomfield

To a viewer in the winter of 2021-2022, the most apposite of Broomfield’s images are those that concern the energy industry. In 1954 he climbed the 300-foot-high cooling tower of Calder Hall, Britain’s (and the world’s) first full-size nuclear power station. Afterwards he compared the place to the future imagined by HG Wells: “These vast white concrete buildings seemed to be from the world of tomorrow… Here was strength and power.” Ten years later the UK began exploring the North Sea for oil and gas, and as the UK mined its offshore waters for fossil fuels, Broomfield produced images for the Gas Council that were exhibited to the public as showing “Your Natural Wealth”. Power was progress, back then, but the images of flaring rigs — made in a spirit of hope and exploration — have a different significance now.

That’s not to say that the images Broomfield made of Britain’s industrial heyday didn’t ask questions. They were brilliantly composed to invite questions, and continue to do so. Who is that person? What are those things? What do they do?

Maurice Broomfield: Industrial Sublime is on now at the V&A Photography Centre until November.

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