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Team Photo - Grafik

As a genre, industrial photography’s evolution has wavered alongside cycles of growth and collapse, as well as the shifting make up of modern economies; it is not a field with much room for ambiguity, the photographer often having to define their position from the outset, due to issues of access and intent. During the mid-20th Century productive boom many of the great practitioners of industrial photography were employed by the companies that they were cataloguing, and so, their relative aesthetic strengths have to be read against a skewed agenda. Esther Bubley’s photographs for the Standard Oil Company — “character” images depicting the American man at ease within his machine environment — are a case in point; as are Maurice Broomfield’s dramatically (but artificially) lit quasi-surrealist images for Imperial Chemical Industries. During the same period, weekly photojournalistic magazines such as Life provided an outlet for industrial photography with a human-interest angle – just prior to joining the staff, one of that title’s chief photographers, Margaret Bourke-White, commented of her own evolution from the mechanistic to the humanistic: “While it is very important to get a striking picture of a line of smoke stacks or a row of dynamos, it is becoming more and more important to reflect the life that goes on behind these photographs.” As we’ve shed the naive belief in a particular neoliberal vision of progress, industrial photography has taken a critical turn, highlighting the environmental and social catastrophes inflicted by multi-nationals as part of often protracted, research-led investigations – think Richard Misrach and Kate Orff’s Petrochemical America or Eirik Johnson’s Sawdust Mountain – and are increasingly the preserve of fine artists as opposed to photojournalists or visual anthropologists.


Peter Maxwell

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