Working at the Factory – In Praise of Maurice Broomfields’ Industrial Photographs
I am not sure which is worse: to be known as the child of, or to be known as the parent of. It seems that the latter is a more uncommon curse, and it applies to photographer Maurice Broomfield. Broomfield’s son, Nick, attained fame as a gifted documentary film maker, known from films such as Behind the Rent Strike, Kurt & Courtney and The Leader, his Driver, and his Driver’s Wife. However, it seems fairly safe to say that his father Maurice provided some of the groundwork for Nick to flourish in.
But let us return to the father. I first encountered Maurice Broomfield’s work in a small retrospective in Derby Industrial Museum last May. The museum, a former silk mill in one of Britain’s old industrial heartlands, seemed not only a fitting space for Broomfield’s work, but also a symbolic return to his roots. After all, Broomfield was born near Derby, and started working on the assembly line at the age of 15. If not for his attendance at the Derby College of Art in the evenings, which eventually led him to take up the camera, he would have been a blue-collar worker himself. It is probably this closeness to, and inside knowledge of industrial working life, that made him capable of depicting industrial scenes with such skill and precision.
I am not sure which is worse: to be known as the child of, or to be known as the parent of. It seems that the latter is a more uncommon curse, and it applies to photographer Maurice Broomfield.
Broomfield was not a documentary photographer as such, he did not simply photograph what he encountered on the work floor. Instead, he staged his photographs in such way as to capture the scene in the most dramatic lighting. His compositions are graphic, the workers stand in rigid but noble poses, the products are cleaned and polished, the machines are elements of beauty. Whilst primarily known for depicting the booming British industries during the 1950s and 1960s, he also did a spell in The Netherlands, photographing the Philips factories. Later in his career he travelled to more remote corners of the earth, such as Kashmir. Even here, his primary focus lay on depicting workers performing their duties.
Much of his work is the result of commissions given by various companies, to illustrate their workplaces in the best possible light. Nonetheless, the quality of Broomfield’s pictures is well above and beyond the photographs usually found in company literature. In their own way they document a particular period of British industry, with much respect for the workers doing their jobs. Since coming across his work, I have wondered how much influence Broomfield has had on later industrial photographers such as Ed Burtynsky, and to what extent he was familiar with the work of predecessors such as Lewis Hine and August Sander, and photographers from the Bauhaus and Neue Sachlichkeit periods in Germany.
Nonetheless, the quality of Broomfield’s pictures is well above and beyond the photographs usually found in company literature.
Sixty-odd of his best pictures have been collected in his book Photographs, published by Foto8. The book is beautifully designed: simple, yet elegant with its red fabric cover. The photographs are nicely spaced out by keeping the left pages blank save for a small caption, and the right pages dedicated to the photographs. Maurice Broomfield’s work is an absolute treat, and it is a shame he is not more widely known.
Maurice Broomfield: Photographs. Foto8. ISBN: 978-0955958014