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It’s hard to see through the thick smoke. There are six different soot-blackened stereo systems playing six different radio stations and Ransford Smith has his shirt off, frantically shovelling black sand in a cloud of steam, turning it into a moist steaming pyramid so it will be soft enough for him to use on his next shift. He introduces himself as “Top Dog”.
Kirkpatrick Foundry was founded in 1855 and Smith has worked there as a moulder, making flat-iron door furniture, for 20 years. He is the highest-paid pieceworker in the foundry, staggering from the crucible with a bule and ladle holding 25kg of molten iron, pouring it into the flat sand moulds laid out neatly on the foundry floor. On an average day Smith does this 25 times – more than double anyone else. Using a technology that has hardly changed since the founding of the factory, it looks back-breaking, like a scene from a Philip Reeve novel.
I worked as a photographer in the Black Country in the early 1980s, looking at the changing nature of immigration and the closure of foundries after the recession in 1982. In 1983, at the beginning of Thatcher’s second term, her market liberalisation and thrashing of the unions had shaken out many of the unprofitable businesses and suppliers previously propped up by state handouts. So I was fascinated to go back and see how things had changed.
Back then, I’d called the project “Closed-down Britain” and found a landscape of deserted factories and foundries. I made portraits of workers and managers in their dilapidated former places of work. Dorothy Vann, an accounts clerk at Hale & Hale, also had the job of taking a tray of tea and biscuits to the chairman in his mahogany-lined office every afternoon. Larry Bradley, in his old cabin at Harper’s foundry in Tipton, had found a discarded notebook that logged cupola tonnage. At the back was his own handwriting and at the front was his father’s – he’d inherited the job. When the plant closed in 1982, Bradley had worked there 40 years, his brother 46; his two sons, his wife, his brother’s wife and two brothers-in-law also worked at the plant. This was a family tragedy unfolding.
Visiting some of the same places now, on the surface little seems to have changed: there are still plenty of closed-down shops, derelict industrial buildings, rubbish everywhere, but also banal public sculptures on the roundabouts and plenty of lap-dancing clubs.
Some companies, though, are thriving. Brooks has been making bicycle saddles since the 1880s, but the recent boom in cycling means it has turned its traditionally manufactured products into a global brand. Midland Snacks in Wolverhampton was set up in 1980. When I asked Daren Watkiss, who has been frying Danish frozen pork skins for 14 years, how he keeps so cheerful, he replied, “I just get my head down and get on with it.”
This time I approached the subject more as a landscape photographer, looking for elegance and beauty within these industrial environments. The greater challenge was to find a way to make the more recent investments look interesting – machines which are essentially enormously expensive closed boxes controlled by computers, with material going in one end and product coming out of the other.
The perfect scenario for me was to be left alone to explore. In many places this was possible, and the bigger and noisier the machinery the better. Sometimes, due to safety issues, it was not: moving cranes, fork-lift trucks and massive ladles of molten metal need to be treated with respect.
Very early one morning I went off to Angle Ring (“Metal Bending is our World”) in Tipton – it bent the Wembley Arch and the Millenium Wheel. I loved this place the size of two cathedrals, the massive cranes and presses, and huge pieces of steel bending effortlessly. Wandering freely, I was told to stay away from certain processes lest competitors should find out their techniques; there is a lot of secrecy in the metal bending world. At the back of one of the huge sheds I found what looked like a tank. Apparently the chairman collects them.
‘Open for Business’ is a collaboration between Multistory and Magnum Photos, funded by Arts Council England and nine UK cultural institutions
A nationwide touring exhibition opens at the National Media Museum, Bradford, in January 2014. www.openforbusiness.uk.com