Is it Craft or could it be Art ?

image of large decanting tool for car part production by WHS plastics

There is little doubt that the Industrial and manufacturing sector is perhaps the most unglamorous area of commercial photography, the question I pose, is their Art in manufacturing photography? Could it be something you would hang on a wall?

There certainly is extraordinary craft, refinement and precision within the manufacturing process but are my photographs a form of art or just artistic, most would site the lack of narrative, conceptual idea or intention, just leaving a visual representation no matter how well done.

I have always had empathy for the manufacturing process, brought up in an engineering family, my father was a toolmaker by trade, uncle worked at “the Austin”, grandad at Chain makers, the first commercial commission I ever received was for my father’s die-casting business.

Hailing from the Black country in the Midlands I spent the early years working for the companies that made the area as they say ‘the workshop of the world’, Triumph,BSR, BSA, Yale, Beldray, Chubb, Brierley Crystal, Walsall’s leather industry, Walter Sumers who made Sudam Hussain long range canon! and numerous car part manufacturers, if their names are still with us the production and factories have mostly gone.

Back on the Shop floor,

I have recently found myself going full circle in my career with commissions taking me back to the shop floor, capturing the production process, consequently asking the retorical question of my own dicsipline.

From my early day’s the photographic process and method has not changed dramatically, although the days of filthy dirty factories with oil and suds covering every surface have well gone, with most modern facility resembling a laboratory. The big change was the introduction to digital of course, but also with more freedom and flexibility from new equipment and cameras have helped increase the creative possibilities. You no longer have to spend hours lighting every image, and thank goodness the bright neon gel coloured shots have gone, (I am sure they will come back most thing do).

Steamfitter by Lewis Hine 1920

Steamfitter by Lewis Hine 1920

The launch of compact battery lights like Elinchrom Rangers and Profoto’s has eased the technical challenges of running main lights through factories on miles of extension cables, always mindful of the dangers of electrocuting an assistant.

Now I like to get down and dirty, getting into a machine close to the process, close to the action, stamp, spark, mill, grind, turn, press, the basic process of starting with a block of metal to producing an object of real beauty and craftsmanship. So is the photography of the manufacturing process art? perhaps not but it can be a thing of Beauty, has it any merit other than with the company and photographer.

The aesthetics of the manufacturing photograph is not prized alongside the fashion image, portrait or even landscape but to me, they have real value, when you see an image of the first mac, Apple -1 with the word hello on the screen that seems to me to be Art in all is forms, Design, Function, Craft, Manufacture, communication and aesthetic beauty.

Historically some industrial photography have ascended to be classed as art, Lewis Hine study of workers, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Industrial landscape, and more recently Andreas Gursky constructed environments, however these are more topographical studies, Bill Brant’s, Robert Frank’s  would well sum up the art of Manufacturing or Industry in all its gloom and poverty, but not the celebration of capturing the Manufacturing process, the recording of the making of things.

Factory Incidental details,

I regard my best success’s when I have approached the subject as you would any still life in the studio, looking at composition and lighting, trying a new vantage point crafting an image, molding it specification into a photograph that says as much as it can about the craft and precision. And as a photographer it gives me the opportunity to use my skills to enhance and separate it from its enviorment for dramatic visual appeal.   

Besides the images of the new investment and machines, I try to look beyond where possible, there always seems to be an opportunity to look at the process, the dramatic detail, to capture the action. Maybe I haven’t achieved art in my manufacturing images yet, however take them out of context,put them througha couple of filters, frame them up large, place them on a gallery wall?

I have tried to outline a very brief summary of the possibilities of creative Manufacturing photography using some of examples of my work over the last year or so and if you are a company commissioning photography don’t just go for the obvious, look at the art of manufacturing photography and all its possibilities.