As noted in my Assignment 3 write-up, I found it a little difficult to get into the Buildings & Spaces section of the course, particularly due to a lack of guiding inspiration from existing photographic sources – a problem that didn’t occur at all with People Aware and People Unaware.
Compared to the flood of examples of portraiture and street photography, there is a relative drought of photographic works that depict buildings and spaces in use. There is a lot of inspiration around if you’re looking for purely architectural or aesthetic imagery of buildings, but that’s not what I was looking for here; I was searching for examples of photography that effectively showed how a space is used by people – in my view this was at the heart of the assignment.
The one source I found that broke me out of my ‘photographer’s block’ was Foto/Industria . It’s a boxed set of small booklets (bigger than pamphlets but not quite books) to accompany a curated series of 17 exhibitions in Bologna, Italy, of the same name – all themed around business and industrial photography.
Each booklet accompanies and summarises an exhibition that took place as part of the first Foto/Industria in October 2013. Most focus on one particular photographer, and some more specifically on one of their projects, but the unifying theme is that they are all concerned with the workplace:
- Many focus on the people in the businesses depicted, and fall more into the portraiture or candid photography genres
- Others are much more purely architectural and display the grandeur and scale of massive industrial constructions
- The most interesting ones in the context of my research for this assignment were the ones that showed how the workers and the workplace interacted
Of the 17 collections, there were a handful that caught my attention. They fall into a mix of the second and third categories above – those that focus on the buildings themselves and those that cover how people use the buildings in their work.
Originally an architect, Basilico’s work is typified by strong geometric shapes, lines and in many cases, repetition. He brings out the corporeal nature of industrial buildings by often focusing on their networks of pipes, wires and ducts that move the necessary solids, liquids and gases around the structure.
Some examples of his work give the impression of a factory as a living, breathing entity – robotic or alien perhaps, but sentient nonetheless. Aesthetically, his work is what you might call traditional industrial style: mono, high contrast, gritty.
Last year I visited an exhibition of David Lynch’s industrial photography and I can see parallels – albeit Lynch’s work focused more on disused and decaying industrial buildings.
In comparison, Gruyaert has taken a very different aesthetic approach. He is lauded as one of the pioneers of colour photography, and his industrial images are, in comparison to those of Basilico, bright and colourful. His pictures really pick out the colours prevalent in certain industrial environments. Sometimes the colours are very strong and saturated, sometimes more pastel-toned, but often surprising the viewer who might expect industrial environments to be grey and oppressive.
More than the others featured here, he gets beyond the spaces and introduces the people, showing how they interact. Again he plays close attention to colour, often theming a picture around a particular colour such as the green overalled man in the green-painted Cogema plant, or the blue uniforms of the Niger workers against the pale blue backdrop.
Like Gruyaert, this photographer caught my eye due to the way he seems to have developed a unique way of seeing industrial environments. His distinctive vision is based on a kind of ‘hyper-real’ high-key luminosity that renders his subjects pale, pastel-hued and often somewhat ethereal. Again, like Gruyaert he subverts the notion that industrial environments are dark, dingy, grimy and grey.
In some photos the juxtaposition of heavy industry and the almost dreamlike lighting style is quite beguiling – as a viewer you find yourself staring at them, trying to decipher: is this a real industrial workspace, or a stylised set? One does wonder how accurate a depiction it is – either he shoots photographs in sanitised environments (before they’re actually used?) or there’s a bit of post-processing going on. Either way, the end result is that through his eyes you see industrial complexes in a very different way than you do with more traditional executions.
This is an example of a very focused project, the building of the Airbus A380 superliner. Power does an excellent job of depicting the scale of the activity as the component parts of the place are manufactured in plants in various countries before being assembled.
Again I was attracted partly because of the aesthetic: he finds some interesting, borderline abstract, compositions that lift these images above factory-floor snapshots, and his use of strong blocks of colour are visually striking.
Many of the images seem to be concerned with demonstrating the epic size of the end product; a person here, a propped-up bicycle there, a lorry cab dwarfed by a section of cabin – all give a strong sense of scale.
Mirelle Thijsen (ed.)
The last of the booklets to be worthy of mentioning here is a compilation of images from ‘company photobooks’ that businesses used to produce to promote themselves and/or give to staff and visitors as mementos. Some are more posed and portrait-like in appearance, but the more interesting ones are those that depict (seemingly unposed) examples of people at work.
Some of the working situations are quite distinctive to a particular sector or even company, and it was these that I found most interesting in the context of assignment research – the images that really showed how a workplace was used by the workers. Seeing these examples was where the assignment started to fall into place for me.
I didn’t seek to directly emulate any of the techniques I saw in the exhibition booklets in the final assignment – I only included one actual working space (the coach renovation workshop) and one former working space (the converted iron foundry). However, the overall effect of the set of booklets was to open my mind somewhat to the opportunities for taking pictures of spaces designed for a particular purpose, and for that much-needed general inspiration I’m very grateful!