Season of Photography: exploring industrial photographs

Photography Scotland’s Season of Photography runs this year from September-November. To mark the event, I have been challenged to explore the photographs contained within our business collections, and to consider their unique value in archival research.

When we conjure an image of an archive collection, we probably think of stacks of thick ledgers and manuscripts, textual volumes holding centuries of history. But photographic sources – albums, individual prints and negatives – are equally essential archival sources. As anyone who has spent time researching in an archive can tell you, after hours of analysing and unpicking the detail of textual sources, a photographic source can be very welcome indeed. Photographs are brimming with character, reminding us that the information contained in archive documents is not only academic, administrative and abstract, but deeply human and material. The metallic glint of a meticulously crafted engine; the shaft of light sweeping across a sawdust strewn factory floor; the sweaty brow of a worker midway through a demanding task: it’s small details such as these that make photographs the crucial treasures they are.

Handle with care… drawers of glass negatives in our Archives

Our Scottish Business Archive, part of Archives & Special Collections, is packed with unique and interesting pictures.  From shipbuilders to carpet and textile manufacturers, iron foundries to optical instrument manufacturers, photographs found in our collections span the breadth and depth of Scotland’s industrial heritage.

If you’re researching this industrial past, it’s likely your research will be intimately connected with a product, something physical and material.  Technological innovation abounded at the turn of the 19th century, and as a result industry was producing evermore meticulously crafted and intricate items. These products are deeply visual: to get a real appreciation for them, we need to see them. This is particularly true of engineering companies such as William Beardmore & Co Ltd., who were making sophisticated and awe-inspiring products. Photographic records document the company’s history, giving us a glimpse of Beardmore’s imposing creations and inviting us to speculate about why photographing them was important for the company.  

Steel behemoths: a worker dwarfed by their industry, c. 1910s (Source: UGD100/1/11/1/23)

The photographs in these albums might have been made for any number of reasons: perhaps for the functional purpose of sharing industrial expertise and attracting investment, or perhaps to underline the fierce beauty of industrial production. Some of these photographs cover the war period of 1914-1918, during which Beardmore’s went through a frantic phase of production. Viewed in light of that context, these photos might have been produced with the intention of displaying the nations might, boosting pride and morale. Whatever the intention, it’s clear that the Beardmore Company was keen to show off what they made: images of finished products standing stark against a white background allow us to focus on the marvel of industrial machinery without distraction (and also demonstrate some innovative photograph editing), whilst pictures are framed to show off the huge size of the ships and machines being manufactured. It must have been quite a sight seeing these powerful and dangerous creations littering the banks of the Clyde.

Intricate machines: an engine stands stark against a white background, c. 1910s (Source: UGD100/1/11/1/18)

Of course, for industrial historians, it not just finished products and materials that are interesting: it’s also the social lives of these things, the story of how they came to be, that needs to be researched. The records of James Templeton & Co Ltd, a carpet makers based in Glasgow, allow us to do just that.

A flurry of activity: workers blur as the carpets are woven together, 1927 (Source: STOD/201/2/16/1/3)

This collection gives us a panoramic view of how a product comes to life. Templeton’s corporate archive includes a huge number of photographs, captured over several decades and featuring the many different departments of Templeton’s operations. In a series of striking prints, we can see how the idea for the carpets first germinated – pictures of workshops, filled with designers crowded around benches laden with pots of paint and rolls of paper, paintbrushes carefully poised in their hands. We then get to see how Templeton’s turned this moment of artistic creation into a thriving business: mounds of wool emerging from industrial vats of dye, yarn winding from bobbins to spools; jute, wool and linen coming together on the loom, carpets being cut and hemmed: the pictures testify to the fact that the carpets were made using many machines, many hands and many skill sets. We even get to see a glimpse at what came next: the carpets being rolled up, labelled and loaded into vans, destined to travel all over the world. Without any written information, we are taken on a visual journey and given a snapshot of this exciting moment in Scottish business; the social lives of the carpets clearly on display.   

Global connections: a carpet is packed and loaded, ready for travel to Queenstown, c. 1920s (Source: STOD/201/2/16/2/4/77)

Thinking about the social lives of products leads us onto a third key area that a researcher using our industrial archives might be keen to explore: the history of the people who created this social web in the first place. The records of Nobel’s Explosives Co Ltd, explosives manufacturers, contain fascinating social histories. Although the photographic component of this collection is relatively small, contained within a single folder are some incredible and irreplaceable images of Scotland’s industrial heritage, dating as far back as the 1860s.

Smiles for the camera: Walter Gray, nailer, and Tinnie Cawther, tinsmith, in the year 1860 (Source: UGD89/2/1)

The workers are the stars of this collection. Too often the working men and women who were the lifeblood of industry becomes a spectral presence in history; something only visible when reading between the lines. With these photographs however, we get to see the workers not as an anonymous group, but as the individuals they were. We get to see the high stakes of their work, with photographs reminding us that these workers were labouring in potentially dangerous conditions. Strict rules about wearing no metal to prevent dangerous sparks were enforced by thorough checks of workers before they entered the warehouse, whilst mounds of sand covered the factory floor to stop any potential fire spread. Manufacturing dynamite was undoubtedly hard and precarious work, but smiling group photos remind us that there would have been a strong sense of community and solidarity for the workers.

Making history: Women at Westquarter factory lining up to be searched for metal before working, c. 1890 (Source: UGD89/2/9)

Perhaps most striking of all in this collection, and the photos that I have found the most quietly moving, are the photographs of women at work. Though women had long been working in mills and ‘lighter’ industries such as textiles, their presence in munition and explosive work was notable. These women predate the famous First World War mutionettes by at least two decades. In this sense, at the very moment they are being pictured, these women are setting a precedent and a mood that would grow stronger as the 20th century dawned, ushering in decades of turbulence and development. These women, along with many others up and down the country, were making history as they went about their work. They were never given a chance to write their story, with that sort of documentation usually reserved for bourgeois men. These visual records are therefore among the only records that remain. It’s for precisely this reason that photographs are treasures.

If you’re interested in exploring the industrial photography we hold in the Scottish Business Archive for yourself, why not head over to our Flickr and get some inspiration? Another way to get started is simply by visiting our online catalogue and searching ‘photograph’ – you’ll generate a list of 60 collections with significant series of photographs.



Categories: Archive Services, Archives and Special Collections, Library

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