|Written by Jon Levy|
|13 Oct 2010|
Maurice Broomfield, a photographer best known for his portraits of industry during the 50s, 60s and 70s, has passed away, aged 94. Up until the week before he had been working on new ideas for exhibitions and productions of his work with such creativity and vitality that those of us who had the pleasure to work with him professionally never considered him old. Throughout recent hospital treatments Maurice’s involvement in the future of his archive, overseeing, editing and giving instructions for printing his photographs, continued as strong as ever.
Behind each of his images is a story; I delighted in his tales of lighting trickery and his admiration and praise for the workers he photographed. Take, for example, the milk factory in Wiltshire (1966), where he decided to paint the employees’ boots white to make them stand out from the background, always regarding it as his job to elevate the subject and pay homage to the workers. On this occasion the plant managers adopted his idea permanently and white boots became compulsory. In another image, of the T Ward works (1958), he made high art and drama out of a cold steel drum on a winter’s day. Employing dramatic lighting he cast the scene with warmth, while creating an image imbued with gravitas.
"Standing in a scrapyard on a cold winter's day trying to create a photograph of visual impact is a bit daunting. It was more difficult to persuade the two welders to leave their warm hut and get the necessary gear to the cylinder." Electric Arc Cutting Inside a Boiler, T Ward, 1958
Maurice recalled the chatter of the women at the Crosse and Blackwell bottling plant in Bermondsey, London, as they sorted the salad-cream bottles on the production line, the liveliness of the workers’ conversations drowning out the din of the machinery and clanking glass. In this photograph, as in all of his portraits, the people are paramount. The focus of his eye is most often not on the elegantly lit steel bearing, the fur hat, or the oil rig out at sea, but rather on the welder, the hat-maker and the heroic oil-worker to whom Britain owed such great productivity and prosperity during this golden age of industry. If there was a truth he wished to show us in his photographs, it was that the workers were to be appreciated and revered for their hard graft and grace.
"Whenever I look at this picture I recall the happy atmosphere in Crosse and Blackwell. Above the sounds of clinking bottles, jokes, accompanied with peals of laughter, were being exchanged across the conveyor line." Bottling Salad Cream, Crosse and Blackwell, Bermondsey, London, 1951
Maurice was born in Draycott, Derbyshire, where his father was a lace-maker. In 1931, at 15, he found himself doing a brief stint on the production line at the Rolls-Royce factory while also attending Derby college of design. There he discovered the flair for design that provided him with the means of escape from the factory floor, and he embarked instead on a creative odyssey that would last the rest of his life.
Working at the Rowntrees sweet factory in 1935, Maurice began by designing promotional graphics while he shot photographs for the newly launched Black Magic chocolates. His evenings were spent using the company darkroom, often late into the night. He told me how his growing tardiness getting to work in the mornings eventually got him fired, but he carried on sneaking in to use the darkroom anyway. One night, when Maurice thought he was alone in the building, he was disturbed by Seebohm Rowntree, the then director. Rowntree was so impressed to find an “employee” working at such a late hour that he duly reinstated the young Broomfield.
Combing a Guard's Bearskin. The workshop of J Compton, Sons and Webb, London 1957
During the second world war, Maurice worked in the Friends Ambulance Unit, aiding casualties of the blitz, and afterwards travelled around Europe, taking pictures of its ruined cities. His return to the UK coincided with a boom in industrial production, and he set up Yevonde and Broomfield Ltd, in partnership with the established commercial and portrait photographer Yevonde Cumbers Middleton, known as Madame Yevonde.
Their studio in Berkeley Square was frequented by an enviable list of society names and big industrialists. From this haven of vibrant creativity and lively networking opportunities, Maurice launched himself into the project that was to last him the next 30 years – documenting the heyday of industry through its factories, its processes and, above all, its workers. Behind the lens Maurice knew that – but for the intervention of his art and photography – he, too, would have faced a lifetime of struggle working in a factory for long hours, low pay, in difficult conditions.
"Although wartime restrictions on stockings were over, a pair of fine Nylons was still a welcome gift. This laboratory tested Nylon thread - its strength and appearance of the stocking on a shapely leg. The strength was acknowledged by a motoring organisation: 'In the event of a fan breakage a Nylon stocking makes a good temporary replacement'. At least it would get you home." Nylon Stocking Testing, British Nylon Spinners, Pontypool, Wales, 1957
Maurice’s rich colour photography echoed Madame Yevonde’s ground-breaking colour work of the 30s and, with his stunningly lit black-and-white imagery, photography became his entrée to ever-more ambitious corporate commissions. Leaders of industry sent him far and wide to photograph their operations, from European headquarters, to steel works and mountain road building in the far reaches of Pakistan, from De Beers’ diamond mines in Sierra Leone, to a commission from the Financial Times to make a photographic portrait of America. Alongside these commissions. he began to exhibit widely, curating and presenting his work at the Royal Photographic Society and representing the UK at the 1964 World’s Fair.
"The correct pitch of a propeller is vital for the comfort of passengers on prestigious cruise ships. The prospect of having one's cocktail continuously shaken is enough for some to cancel the trip. I am sure little thought is given to the man seen in the photograph, who through years of experience makes sure the pitch of the propeller blades is correct, ensuring a fast, economical and vibration-free voyage." Balancing a Ship Propeller, Bull's Metal and Marine Shipyard, Glasgow, Scotland, 1956
Maurice made thousands of images on negative film; these are now held in his archive with his notes and notations. Up until this year, he had been working on organising and editing his great collection of photographs with the help of Emily Graham, a young London-based photographer; together they unearthed some of his most poignant images and painstakingly matched them to his memory of the day they were shot. At Host, Maurice’s gallery in London, we also had the opportunity to digitise some of this new material to add to the collection. In a further step to safeguard Maurice’s photographic legacy, his negatives have been collected by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In 1947 Maurice married the social activist Sonja Lagusova, and together they had two children: Ann, a graduate of the Courtauld Institute, is a paintings conservator; Nick is an award-winning documentary film-maker. After Sonia’s death from cancer in 1982, Maurice turned away from photography and concentrated on painting. He met his second wife, Suzy Thompson-Coon, on a painting course and in 1987 they married and settled in Emsworth, Hampshire, on the coast overlooking a small harbour. The boats outside his window one summer’s day prompted him to recount to me his stories of travelling around the world by container ship at the sprightly age of 80.
"I have often been asked how or why did I get workers in factories to wear their everyday clothing. I didn't. Few industries provided special protective gear so it was normal for the men and women to wear their not-so-new, shabby clothing in the factory. Hence the stylish shoes and colourful headscarf." Preparing a Warp, British Nyon Spinners, Pontypool, Wales, 1964
For Maurice, photography embodied a sense of adventure. Travelling with his large plate cameras and tripod in tow he brought back exotic stories of new territories discovered and, always, the images of men and women at work. In 2009 I published a book of his collected works entitled Maurice Broomfield Photographs and just this year he attended an exhibition of his photography at Pallant House in Chichester and in his hometown of Derby. His shows reconnected him with old friends, and he enjoyed being contacted by the husband of a lady in one of his early images of cotton-spinning in Derbyshire that was included in the exhibition at the Salt Mill centre.
"It was the creaking sound of the winding wheel and the Portuguese fisherman's song that drew me to this beach scene. They were fishing for sardines, expectantly winding the nets after leaving them out in the bay overnight." Winding Nets from Sardine Fishing, Portugal, 1956
Almost until the end, he continued working and during recent hospital treatments he remained involved in the future of his archive, overseeing, editing and giving instructions for printing his photographs. Just as I never thought of Maurice as old, I also never considered his images limited in any way to a historical or aesthetic era that had passed on. Maurice was an inspiration to everyone who had the fortune to know and work with him. His gentle kindness and generosity of spirit, coupled with an unmovable sense of justice and integrity in his art, are qualities that live on in our consciousness, as fresh and relevant today as the day they were when first captured in his photographs.
Maurice Broomfield, photographer, born 2 February 1916; died 4 October 2010
Maurice Broomfield Photographs and the limited edition version of the book are available from the Foto8 online shop as well as a special edition 8x10 print
Maurice Broomfield in Pakistan, 1961