Documentary photographer Janine Wiedel’s Vulcan’s Forge series is being exhibited in the West Midlands in its entirety for the first time since the early 1980s. The work was created between 1977 and 1979, when London-based Wiedel held a bursary from West Midlands Arts. She used the money to undertake a photographic journey across the major urban areas of the West Midlands region, documenting workers and workplaces engaged in the region’s traditional craft industries.
The 1970s was the moment a confluence of circumstances established photography as a major artform in Britain. Reforms to the Arts Council initiated by Jennie Lee in the late 1960s enabled the organisation to become more interested and involved in funding emerging art forms and projects undertaken in the community. Changes were implemented just as a dedicated infrastructure for supporting photography institutionally, such as Newcastle’s Amber Collective, the York-based Impressions Gallery, and the London-focused Camerawork magazine began to emerge. As the decade progressed, the expansion of critical arts education in polytechnics, art schools, and elsewhere in adult education allowed an archipelago of critics, theorists, and curators to form—as well as providing new employment opportunities for working art and documentary photographers.
In scope and ambition, Vulcan’s Forge vividly demonstrates this moment’s confidence and innovation. Wiedel’s grant enabled her to spend weeks getting to know the West Midlands and the people and workplaces she photographed across Birmingham, the Black Country, and North Staffordshire, in and around Stoke-on-Trent. The result is a stunning set of photographs, lit up with the warmth, humor, and characters of the workers photographed. In this regard, they stand among the very best of the humanistic, socially engaged documentary photography of the 1970s.
Her documentation of Birmingham’s metal stampers and jewellery makers, Stoke-on-Trent’s potters and steelworkers, Cradley Heath’s chainmakers, North Staffordshire’s coal miners, and Bilston’s steelmakers strives to capture the essence of their craft. Wiedel’s photography has been described by Clive Lancaster as ‘the work of a great technician’, and in her photographs of workers engaged in their craft or operating great, complicated industrial processes, it is impossible not to detect an eye which has identified fellow craftspeople at work.
In this way, the work recalls that of the eighteenth-century painter Joseph Wright of Derby, whose best work shows a clear fascination with and respect and empathy for the ironfounders and other emergent industrial workers who underpinned the early factory system in the English Midlands. In its illumination and celebration of industrial processes and craft skill, Wiedel’s work also shows a clear kinship with that of W. Eugene Smith, who on a Picture Post assignment became so entranced photographing steelworks and steelworkers in 1950s Pittsburgh that he ended up with sixteen thousand photographs, missing his assignment deadline by two years.
This empathy also brings to mind more recent photographic projects documenting workplaces with a similar sense of connection to the worker and respect for and fascination with their craft. As a rule, photographic projects documenting service work environments or white-collar workplaces tend to foreground the surreal, unsettling, or uncanny aspects of such places of toil. By contrast, the documentation of manual trades—whether by Wiedel, or, for example, Anand Chhabra’s documentation of the Indian Factory Worker in 1990s Wolverhampton, or Joanne Coates’ North Sea Swells project, capturing the fishing industry on Britain’s North Sea coast in the 2010s—picks out human skill and sensitivity amid harsh, hard, and grimy work environments.
Of course, there is a poignancy in Vulcan’s Forge returning to the West Midlands, given that the industry Wiedel documented is now overwhelmingly gone—something clearly expressed in the fact that the venue for the current exhibition is a former jewellery works in Birmingham’s fashionable and increasingly gentrified Jewellery Quarter.
The British Journal of Photography’s review of the first exhibition of Vulcan’s Forge at the Photographers’ Gallery in 1979 described ‘a good deal’ of the industries documented as ‘already obsolete as far as the world’s great markets are concerned’. This proved correct from a capitalist perspective: both steelworks documented during the project closed within twelve months of the grant’s conclusion, with the stamping factory following them by the end of 1981. They were victims of the retrenchment of British Steel, and a recession induced by revanchist Thatcherite monetarist policies that wiped out a third of British manufacturing capacity between 1979 and 1983. From a human standpoint, the result was five thousand highly skilled steelworkers on the dole overnight. As one of the stamping workers with whom Wiedel has remained in touch has told her, ‘That place was the best money I ever made.’
That former worker’s words point to a key facet of the current Vulcan’s Forge exhibition—the sheer vitality, skill, and inventiveness of the West Midlands’ traditional craft workforce, even as the world they had built began to tumble. This comes through in a set of thoughtful, detailed texts accompanying the photographs of each industry, which trace their development in the West Midlands from ancient times, up to and throughout the industrial revolution, before explaining their decline and eventual eclipse by other locations overseas.
It’s also expressed in the images themselves. Haircuts, facial hair styles, accessories like glasses, transistor radios, and the calendars workers have pinned up behind their benches make it clear that far from being stuck in some pre-World War One timewarp, traditional industrial workplaces were just as integral a part of the late 1970s as Star Wars, punk rock, and the first 8-bit computers.
This means that as well as an opportunity to see one of the great projects of 1970s social documentary photography in all its glory, and a celebration of the sheer skill that went into work in traditional craft industries, the current Vulcan’s Forge exhibition is a warning: that what hundreds of years of care, craft, and skill takes to build up, managerial complacency and negligence, coupled with hostile government policy, can very quickly knock down.