February 20, 2010 12:37 am

Maurice Broomfield’s photographs of industrial Britain

These images convey the excitement generated by British industry and the human relationship between man and his product

At the age of 94, Maurice Broomfield is a little slow on his feet, but his mind still whirrs as efficiently as the machines he used to photograph. Broomfield went from working as a teenager on a factory floor in Derbyshire to photographing his former colleagues, taking pictures that were originally intended to inform but which were subsequently regarded as art.

Broomfield’s photographs, which will be shown in two exhibitions this spring and summer, don’t just record a now-defunct world of looms, laboratories, car factories and cooling towers; they convey the excitement that all that production generated – the electric feeling of being part of the successful project that was postwar British industry.

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Broomfield, the son of a lace-maker, started as a lathe operator at the local Rolls-Royce plant – a choice that didn’t please his mother: “She wanted me to be a nicely clothed worker, not a chap who had to take off dirty overalls before I was allowed in the house. They were covered with this terrible mixture of whale oil and disinfectant that got everywhere.”

Broomfield persisted, and learnt the ins and outs of the job. He realised that the harder the metal, the harder the work, since you had to be careful about breaking the drill: “You could whip through soft metals like anything, so you could get a good bonus for doing much less.” Of course, work too quickly and they cut the bonus rate. The trick was to look out for supervisors and work slowly when they were watching, no matter how soft the metal. “Streetwise!” he says proudly of his young self.

Broomfield would wander the factory, drawing: “I loved the noise, the movement. I remember sitting on the loo seat, making sketches on a piece of lavatory paper.” During the war he drove a Quaker ambulance, and afterward he began taking photos, establishing himself as an industrial photographer inspired by painters – Joseph Wright and Johannes Vermeer in particular. He worked for ICI before travelling the world for Hawker Siddeley, a maker of everything from transformers to aircraft. “I was just finishing a job at a little place in Staines,” he recalls, “and a chap came in wearing an enormous Australian hat. He turned out to be the chairman of the company. And he said, ‘We have companies all over the place, and I don’t know what the hell they are making’.” Broomfield jetted off to Australia and South America to show him.

In the 1950s, he became a newspaper photographer, too, thanks to the FT’s then managing director. “I was fortunate: Lord Drogheda had a great interest in the arts. He said he liked the way I regarded industry as a stage set. And he was right, I did see it as magical; that’s why my lighting became quite theatrical.” From 1954 to 1960, Broomfield published a picture a week in the FT.

His time at Rolls-Royce put Broomfield at ease in the factories, but his celebration of industry was really about the people – when automation came in, he turned his lens elsewhere. In the earlier era of industrialisation, he says, “there was a human relationship between the man and his product. They’d clean up the machinery and make things look nice with the same pride they took at home. And they’d dress nicely, too… it wasn’t unusual to see a chap in a suit and trilby hat or a girl with red shoes and scarf. But the companies started insisting on proper safety equipment and the right working attire, and that’s probably no bad thing.”

Broomfield’s first wife, Sonia, a Czech linguist, worked at Bletchley Park during the war; she died of lung cancer in 1982. He and Sonia had two children, one of whom is Nick Broomfield, the filmmaker. He later married Suzy Thompson Cook, an artist.

What does a factory-fancier who remembers the Depression think of the current financial freefall? Broomfield says: “I think the recovery will be quicker [than the Depression] because now there’s a culture of replacing everything, and once you buy into obsolescence, you can’t suddenly stop. In Sheffield they used to say ‘Buy Sheffield Steel and it will last forever’, whereas now, we don’t want things to last forever.”

Maurice Broomfield’s photographs will be at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, from March 2 to May 9, and at the Silk Mill Museum, Derby, May 1 to July 11. ‘Maurice Broomfield: Photographs’ is published by Foto8 and available at www.foto8.com/shop

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