Industrial Photography in the Machine Age

New perspectives

Did you gasp and wonder when first glancing at this image? The mysterious and monument scene is, in fact, nothing more than a factory hall: a functional space captured in a documentary photograph. Through the art of photography, even such industrial and impersonal spaces can become vehicles for journeys of the imagination. Two crucial ingredients make this magic possible: the miracle of the photographic process and the intelligent eye behind the camera.

Growing to maturity in the same age and at a similar pace, photography and industry share a fascinating history. Technical innovation and scientific research helped industry and photography to evolve into the high tech domains they are today. Both may be considered pioneering domains of modernism.

Massive industrial structures, like this mine shaft photographed by Kollar, only became architecturally possible (and economically viable) through advancements in steel construction, automated production processes and electric installations.

Many photographers in the machine age used unusual, off-centre perspectives to portray the vastness and energy of factory halls. This is illustrated well by Alfred Bernheim’s image of the ATA factory, shown on the left.

These pictures still give a glimpse of the innovations and technological triumphs that sustained the rise of industry. They convey the power of the automated processes that turn raw materials into valuable products, finding beauty in unlikely places. These images also stress the formal rigidity of these kingdoms of machinery, in which people seem entitled to have nothing more than a supporting role.

Take this Swedish factory yard, where tons of blocks of cast iron are stacked. The scene, the perspective and the moment of exposure were chosen carefully by the photographer.

The contrasting mix of orderly buildings and irregularly shaped shapes create an industrial landscape with a substantial dramatic appeal. The colourisation of the image adds to the artful - yet slightly uncanny - effect of this scene.