Against the Machine: Maurice Broomfield's industrial snaps at The Public in West Bromwich

By Jenni Davidson | 13 April 2011
A female worker looking at a large wooden wheel
Assembling a Former for a Stator, English Electric (1960)© Maurice Broomfield
Exhibition: Maurice Broomfield, The Public, West Bromwich, until June 26 2011

Industrial photographer Maurice Broomfield, who died last year, honoured the workers of post-war Britain and changed the face of industrial photography. A collection of 25 of his photographs documenting working life in the 1950s, 60s and 70s has now gone on display at The Public.

Broomfield was born in Draycott, Derbyshire in 1916 where his father was a lacemaker. He left school at 15 to work on an assembly line in a Rolls Royce factory, at the same time taking evening classes in drawing and painting at Derby College of Art.

Painting was to be a huge inspiration to Broomfield; his compositions were shaped by the paintings of Vermeer and the works of the 18th Century British industrial painter Joseph Wright. Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), at Derby Museum, influenced his later use of light.

A woman in the distance between two rows filled with reels of nylon thread
British Nylon Spinners (1971)© Maurice Broomfield
After a period designing marketing materials for Rowntree’s, Broomfield and friend Stephen Peet were commissioned by the International Student Service to travel across Europe in 1946 and record post-war student life in film and photograph.

A recommendation led to his first commission from ICI to photograph one of their factories. However, the non-traditional approach he took to this became his trademark style.

While the company expected wide, impressive shots showing the scale of their enterprise, Broomfield chose instead to focus in the on workers and small details of production, showing how skilled the men and women were.

By careful lighting, darkening the background and illuminating the workers and the machines, he gave the scenes a theatrically dramatic quality lacking from the factory process.

His disembodied mannequin leg set against a dark, shadowy background in Nylon Stocking Testing has a surreal and sinister feel to it, like a piece of Frankenstein’s monster, while the bright red of the worker’s headscarf and smart shoes in Preparing a Warp is incongruous beside the industrial loom.

Broomfield’s work glorifies the workers and imbues ugly, industrial mass production with beauty and dignity.

In addition to the large prints of Maurice Broomfield’s work, The Public commissioned photographers Jonathan Lee and Phil Brooks to capture contemporary industry in the Black Country in 2011. That exhibition, In the Best Light, is displayed alongside the photographs of Maurice Broomfield.

Open 10am-6pm. Admission free.
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