Human industry

In Joseph L Mankiewicz’s dazzling 1955 musical Guys and Dolls, one of the strongest scenes is set in a sewer system bursting with polished steel and technicolour backdrops: bold, brash lines of light and primary colours that look firmly to a hopeful future, putting the dark days of European conflict behind them.

In Britain, a similar aesthetic was being developed on a much smaller, more human scale by industrial photographer Maurice Broomfield, an ex-designer who used photography to document the story of how Britain’s manufacturing industry entered a bold new era of high technology out of the rubble of World War II. Broomfield’s amazing industrial design photographs can be seen next month at the Science Museum exhibition Maurice Broomfield’s ‘New Look’ at Industry: Photographs from Post-War Britain, part of an arts programme at the museum which takes a subjective view of science and technology by seeing it through one person’s eyes.

Curated by Dan Albert, the Science Museum show documents an interesting moment in time for Britain, one that saw British industry struggling to compete with the technologically superior Germany and US. For Broomfield, capturing this tentatively resurgent industrial landscape to show clients such as British Timken, English Electric, British Nylon Spinners and Shell International in a modern, clean and glamorous light could have been a simple matter of shooting the new spaces and machinery using the emerging colour photography, but, as Albert points out, Broomfield’s humanitarian beliefs (he is a Quaker ‹ and was a conscientious objector during World War II) enabled him to do much more than that: ‘On the one hand, he drew on the Continental European aesthetic, the new objectivity of movements such as the Bauhaus, to create images that were graphically arresting and meticulously composed,’ says Albert. ‘But by putting people so firmly at the heart of the picture, he was able to create images that did far more than simply celebrate machinery.’

Albert puts much of this down to the fact that Broomfield was a working class boy himself. ‘He worked at a Rolls-Royce factory and understood this world, so he didn’t objectify it,’ he says. ‘He would spend weeks at the factories he was to photograph, looking at forms, shapes and designs, but also getting to know the workers and getting them used to him so that when he came to taking his pictures they would feel comfortable and relaxed,’ he says.

The tactic obviously worked, but something else also adds to the appeal and quiet humanity of the images; their use of colour. Where the earlier black-and-white ones are very derivative of Continental photography, and suggest the human in thrall to the machine, the colour images clearly show a sympathetic harmony or union between man and machine. As Albert puts it, ‘Colour enabled Broomfield to develop a new language for industrial spaces, which is something no one else knew how to do. He took the form from Bauhaus to British, developing something that to me is distinctly British.’

To think that less than half a century on, most of the companies and the things they produced are no longer part of Britain’s manufacturing landscape adds a sobering poignancy to these stunning images. l

Maurice Broomfield’s ‘New Look’ at Industry: Photographs from Post-War Britain runs from 21 February to 6 May at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7

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