To a photographer like Maurice Broomfield, place means very little when one ignores what’s in it. Architects have long debated the meaning of space: is space a physical container which defines a void, or is it the void itself? A similar debate must be held about the nature of place. Does place, as opposed to space, implicate a human presence? Is place a defined location? Is it an action? Or is it something else entirely? Each of Broomfield’s photographs is an exploration of the notion of place itself. Taken as a whole, Broomfield’s body of work reveals his unique understanding of place, which, ironically, is represented through portraiture, and not through landscape or still life.
These latter two photographic genres are commonly used to define place or objects in place. They call specifically upon a physical environment to lend credence to their typological identities. Portraiture is different. It invites the viewer to develop a relationship with a human subject. A landscape or still life photograph sets the stage, but a portrait adds narrative texture to the scene. This element of narrative figures prominently in all of Broomfield’s images. Rather than stark representations of the technical mechanisms of industry, Broomfield’s photographs focus in on the workers; the actors who animate industrial environments. The stunning use of light which characterizes his images, captured with equal parts skill and luck, highlights the individual at work, to whom British industry and economy owe their success.
This affinity with industrial workers, more than just industry itself, comes from Broomfield’s own relationship with factories in industrial Britain in the years leading up to World War II. He himself began his professional life working in factories. In 1931 at age 15 he left school and started working at a Rolls Royce factory, taking courses at Derby College of Art in the evenings. It was no surprise, then, that his earliest envoy into professional photography took place within the context of a factory. In 1935 he helped to produce promotional graphics and photographs for the newly launched Black Magic chocolates produced by the Rowntree’s sweets factory in York. Broomfield was known to use the company darkroom after hours to process his own images, even after being fired from his position. So impressed with his hard work in the darkroom, the director of the factory eventually reinstated him.
Industrial settings and photography continued to go hand-in-hand throughout the rest of Broomfield’s career. For over thirty years he documented British industry not only in the United Kingdom but around the world. He received commissions from corporations to shoot their European headquarters, South Asian production plants, and even West African mineral mines. No matter the client, Broomfield always portrayed industry as more than just a process or a place, but as a means of dignified work. In this way, each person who makes an appearance in his photographs is depicted as nobly and distinguished as if she is posed for her own portrait: as a woman carefully aligns threads on a loom, the line from her eyes and fingers is perfect perpendicular with her textile-to-be; or, in a room filled with dozens of fur hats, a single worker is illuminated by a nearby window, his white shirt aglow with light. In the end these photographs are always tinged with the photographer’s own humility; Broomfield was once a factory worker and, had he not realized his photographic talent, would have likely spent the rest of his life on a factory floor just as many of his subjects surely had.
It is because of his direct relationship with his subject matter that Broomfield was able to produce such tender, intimate photographs of that which is often typified as a cold, impersonal world. Lacking any reference to humanity, the assembly line or the inspection room is just a place. Presented as such, it takes on a robotic, Orwellian tone, disconnected entirely from human life. By shifting the subject of industry from machines, conveyor belts, and technical instruments to the workers who operate them, Broomfield crafts a vision of the British industry that transcends place to elevate the power craftsmanship. In this understanding, industry is always associated with the human spirit.
Published in Musée Magazine No. 15 “Place”