Maurice Broomfield image

Picture credit: Maurice Broomfield

Maurice Broomfield, a photographer whose work documenting the inner landscape of industrial Britain from the 1950s to the 1970s has recently been rediscovered, has died aged 94.

Maurice Broomfield succeeded through his striking photographs in revealing both the grit and beauty of the people, factories and processes which manufacture the everyday objects around us.

He was born in Draycott, Derbyshire in 1916. His father was a lacemaker. After leaving school at 15, Broomfield found work as a lathe operator, producing components on the Rolls Royce assembly line.

At the same time he took evening classes at Derby College of Art to learn the techniques of drawing and painting which would inform his later work. It was during a visit to Derby Museum with his father that he first saw the paintings of Joseph Wright RA.

The illumination in works such as Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) brought an aspect of wonder to otherwise ordinary industrial scenes and provided some of the inspiration for Broomfield’s distinctive use of lighting in his photographs. As he later explained: ‘I love lighting, it changes everything. It creates moods; it’s like a painting material.’

Making the transition from manufacturing to design, Broomfield created packaging and displays for the confectionery company Rowntrees, by now already including photography in his work.

In the summer of 1946 the International Student Service sponsored Broomfield and his friend Stephen Peet to make a trip across Europe, recording student life on film and in photos. Peet’s Student of Prague, 1946 film is an enduring record of their visit to post-war Czechoslovakia.

On returning to Britain, Broomfield received a commission from ICI to photograph one of their factories. While owners would traditionally have wanted long shots, to demonstrate the size of their production spaces, he sought instead to emphasise the detail of the goods being made and the people involved in their manufacture.

In a recent BBC interview he recalled: ‘It was very difficult to convince the owners and the directors of these companies that we should concentrate on the products that they were making… revealing the workmanship and the pride and joy of making quite wonderful products.’

There followed 30 years of industrial photography during which Broomfield used the factory floor as his stage, the machinery and workers playing their roles in recounting visually the stories of products and their origins.

Through the use of unusual angles or lighting, the viewer would have a new appreciation of what might otherwise be a mundane subject. For example, his Testing Nylon Stockings (1957) sees the item in question stretched on an inverted ‘leg’ at the front of the scene, with the lab technician posed behind, in a picture reminiscent of the avant-garde photographer Man Ray.

Maurice Broomfield photo

Critical appreciation for his innovative and unusual work was quick to arrive.

Between 1954 and 1960 Broomfield was commissioned by the Financial Times to create a weekly image for the newspaper. Then, throughout the 1950s to 1970s, he was a frequent contributor to photographic magazines and a winner of awards including Merit for Industrial Photography in the Institute of British Photographers’ Exhibition (1954), Royal Photographic Society Hood Medal (1958), World Fair of International Photography (1964) and Industrial Photographer of the Year (1974). From the late ’60s he was part of the advisory committee at the Harrow School of Photography.

Following the death of his wife Sonja in 1982, he ceased his photographic work and once again took up his first love, painting. He met his second wife, Suzy Thompson-Coon, on a painting course at West Dean and lived with her in Emsworth, West Sussex.

The beginning of the new millennium saw a resurgence of interest in his work, fuelled by a thirst for information about the formerly great British manufacturing industry, which had fallen into decline since the Thatcher period.

In 2000 the designer Sir Paul Smith hosted an installation of Broomfield’s works at his Floral Street shop in Covent Garden. Smith commented that the photography ‘…captures the real heart of what was a booming but harsh time for the UK. Finding inspiration and creativity in gritty surroundings of every day work is inspiring in itself.’

A further retrospective, ‘New Look for Industry; Photographs from Post-War Britain’, was held at London’s Science Museum in 2007.

The monograph Maurice Broomfield ? Photographs was published last year, containing more than 50 images. Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum, described the photos as having a ‘…precious status as important records that can also be enjoyed as the work of a most discerning artistic eye.’

Broomfield’s most recent shows have been at the Silk Mill, Derby, and Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery, this year. Simon Martin, the curator of ‘A New Look At Industry’ at Pallant House, noted: ‘When we saw the photographs we were just drawn to their extraordinary originality. They are such strikingly modern and inventive photographs which capture a moment of British industrial history at its height.’

His son Nick Broomfield is a documentary film-maker, known for his cinema verité style, clearly influenced by his father’s photographic techniques.

Of his own life and work Maurice Broomfield said: ‘I enjoy photographing people at work, and the many experiences whilst doing this have enriched my life. To be living on this planet, is to me, the greatest gift possible.’

Marcus Williamson

This obituary was first published in The Independent newspaper and is reproduced by kind permission of Marcus Williamson.