History, Notebook, Photography, Reviews

Vulcan’s Forge Returns to the West Midlands

On entering the space in Ruskin Mill’s The Hive where Janine Wiedel’s Vulcan’s Forge is currently exhibited, you are greeted by a life sized band of moustached, hard hatted figures beckoning you into their subterranean realm.   

They are coal miners working in a Staffordshire colliery where Janine Wiedel photographed them during a 2 year West Midlands Arts funded residency (between 1977 and 1979) documenting the rhythm, feel and grain of life in industrial workplaces across the region. Alongside them, arranged thematically by industry and geographical location, are portraits of workers and workplaces engaged in many other long established, world renown West Midlands trades. Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire more widely, is represented by its potters and steelmakers as well as the miners. The Black Country by Cradley Heath’s chainmakers and workers from Bilston’s steelworks. Birmingham enters the frame through a fascinating juxtaposition between the careful skill and precision of workers in its jewellery trade, and the equally precise and skilled, yet infinitely more brute seeming, craft of the workers in a metal stamping shop.

Vulcan’s Forge Exhibition Photograph November 2021, by the Author, All rights Reserved

The current exhibition at The Hive is – so far as I’m aware – the first time that the work has been shown in its entirety in Birmingham since the early 1980s. It is a triumphant return for the project, in an incredibly apt location in what was once a craft workshop like those the project documented. As a venue for the work the exposed brickwork slathered in white paint, hard flooring and exposed pipework of The Hive’s gallery space, provides a suitably practical and industrious space for the photographs.

Wandering amongst the pictures, taking in beautifully framed shots of workers performing craft processes honed over generations and immensely sensitive portraits of workers old and young alike, is incredibly poignant. Each location and industry Vulcan’s Forge documents is accompanied by a thoughtful text vignette which tracks the historical emergence of each trade, explaining how it was transformed over time from being just another activity that a largely rural or semi-rural population performed, into mighty industries that entire towns depended upon and which became key markers of local pride and identity. 

Vulcan’s Forge Exhibition Photograph November 2021, by the Author, All rights Reserved

As spectators viewing the photographs nearly half a century after they were made, much of their poignancy comes from the fact that we know where the story goes next. As the text accompanying the exhibition explains, the steelworks that Janine Wiedel documented on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton both closed within months of her photographing them and their workers. The combined result was that 5,000 skilled, relatively highly paid workers found themselves on the dole amidst a major manufacturing recession and in parts of the country where firms that could utilise their knowledge, experience and knack for managing certain metallurgical processes were thin on the ground.

Whilst it might have been less sudden, a similar story can be told for many of the other industries documented. Coal mining in Staffordshire carried on in a steadily depleting fashion until 1998 when Silverdale the county’s last deep colliery shut. The precision trades of chainmaking, stamping and jewelry making captured in Vulcan’s Forge continue to be practised in Birmingham and the Black Country. But in comparison to coal mining and steelmaking they were always carried out on a smaller scale, and whilst today there are some immensely successful firms in the West Midlands working in these fields, they are by necessity small and nimble, employing relatively few people from nondescript premises.  

Knowledge of this historical context could lend viewing Vulcan’s Forge an elegiac or even requiem quality. Viewing the pictures in such a way alone however, would be an overdetermination. What comes through incredibly strongly in Janine Wiedel’s work is the life and vivacity of the industries documented and the people who worked in them. This is partly the photojournalistic and documentary quality of the work, partly the clear rapport and sympathy that she was able to build up with them (something thoughtfully explored in an ATV documentary produced during the West Midlands Arts commission which can be seen here and which is playing in the exhibition space). After I left the exhibition and thought about it for a while, I remembered where I had seen these qualities before. It is clearly present in the work of Joseph Wright of Derby, an 18th Century painter, born in the East Midlands city, whose best work shows a clear fascination, appreciation and sympathy for the work of artisans toiling in the workshops, foundries and manufactories of the early industrial revolution.

Vulcan’s Forge Exhibition Photograph November 2021, by the Author, All rights Reserved

The workplace is not the only dimension of life captured by Vulcan’s Forge. Whilst the portraits and photographs of workers and their workplaces are rightly the most acclaimed and most well known facet of the project, I was fascinated to notice when viewing the exhibition, just how much of it documented workers leisure time and the wider West Midlands landscape. There are some brilliant panoramic photographs underneath Spaghetti Junction, showing the otherworldly landscape created when the new motorway sliced through and over the top of the older industrial districts of north Birmingham and the Black Country. As well as others which capture the neon and concrete of Birmingham’s central shopping area, a testament to modernist master planning, post-war affluence and some seriously dodgy dealing. 

Vulcan’s Forge Exhibition Photograph November 2021, by the Author, All rights Reserved

These photographs which creatively and evocatively capture the wider situation and context of the West Midlands in the 1970s, sit near an excellent selection of works documenting the workers Janine Wiedel photographed during their leisure time. The images capture lunchtime pub trips, bingo nights and dance lessons. Apparently the men photographed trying to improve their dancing skills were keen to ape John Travolta in the recently released Saturday Night Fever

Vulcan’s Forge Exhibition Photograph November 2021, by the Author, All rights Reserved

Details like these coupled with the photographs of modern shops and motorways firmly place the Vulcan’s Forge photos in their late 1970s context. Much like the mustaches of the miners whose image welcomes you to the exhibition, whilst the crafts they undertook when at work were centuries old, the workers themselves were completely of their own time. Beyond the haircuts, grooming preferences and clothing of the workers themselves, the photographs also capture subtle changes in the otherwise timeless work environments as well. They are spaces which are invariably festooned with new looking transistor radios (a ubiquitous feature of all workplaces during the period) and in the more masculine environments, girlee calendars symbolising the ongoing sexual revolution, even as it fell short of actual sexual liberation. 

Who the workers were was changing as well. I was struck by one portrait in particular of a young African-Carribean man working in Birmingham’s jewellery trade. His presence showing that by the 1970s – even in traditional industries – the British working class was increasingly racially diverse.

For the viewer, what this tells you, is that there was nothing in of itself inevitable about the disappearance of these industries. Of course, even in the 1970s there was clearly a sense that Janine Wiedel was capturing something archaic. This is loftily expressed in Clive Lancaster’s review of the first Vulcan’s Forge exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery in 1979 who wrote that “Much of [the] sprawling world of industrial activity [is] already obsolete as far as the world’s markets are concerned…”. He was also undoubtedly right to point to how “appalling” many of the working conditions endured by those depicted, and the widespread environmental depredation wrought by heavy industry was.

However, he was also correct to point towards the tight bonds and the sense of pride which clearly existed amongst the workers. This was forged through a sense of skill and often knowledge that they were following in a longstanding family tradition of working in that industry, or sometimes even a particular craft role. De-industrialisation has rubbed much of this out, both the environmental impacts (in the UK and much of the wider Global North at least…) and the long established sense of pride, interconnection and purpose which existed in industrial communities and amongst industrial workers. 

There is a widely cited statistical claim that 1977 when the Vulcan’s Forge project began, was the year when the wealth and income gap between the richest and the poorest in British society was the lowest that it has ever been. It was also a time when through large scale council housing programmes, the NHS and the abolition of tuition fees at every level of education, the three key public goods of housing, health and education had been almost completely decommodified. These trends which had developed piecemeal over many decades and which had been set in train even prior to the Second World War could have been extended. It was no way inevitable that these trends would go into reverse, just as it was not inevitable that traditional industries would be shuttered and dismantled as rapidly as they were in the two decades after 1979. 

Concern about the environmental impact of industry and energy and resource intensive lifestyles were widespread and widely discussed even in the 1970s, with efforts in the West Midlands like the Lucas Plan or the Birmingham Green Ban (which saw industrial action by construction workers preventing the demolition of part of the old Central Post Office) showing that these sentiments were widely shared. So it is possible to imagine history carving another notch and changes in industry and the structure of work and the economy taking a more gentle and evolutionary tack after the 1970s, much as it had on many occasions previously. Doubtless the skill, creativity and industry of those Janine Wiedel documented would have made this possible. That this did not happen is down to politics with both a big and a small p.

A vital facet of the current exhibition is Janine Widel’s desire to make contact with the people she photographed in the West Midlands 45 years ago. When I spoke with her about the exhibition it is clear that she has already had some success on this point, having reconnected with some of the old stamping workers whose portrait she took decades ago. She has also heard from Andy Conway, who she photographed as a small boy waiting for his stepdad by the gate of the factory where he worked. You can find out what happened next by watching the video below:

She has also heard from the children and grandchildren of some of the older workers that she documented who have passed away. In many cases, as can be seen sometimes with the public display of family photography, they are delighted to see a picture of a cherished lost relative when they do not possess many, or are curious to see where it was that they worked and what it was that they did all day to earn money.

This is clearly a vital part of Janine Wiedel’s practice; she tells me that “it’s important to give something back when you photograph, not just to take”. This generosity and reciprocity is apparent in the Vulcan’s Forge photographs and the relaxed and familiar way in which those photographed pose or are happy to have their image captured whilst they work. It would be excellent if through the current exhibition like the one at The Hive more people were able to reconnect with their younger self or if more families recognised a loved one. This is the value of returning the work to the region and district in which it was created, that memories of pride, skill and industry can cascade down and give this long accrued capital back with interest to new generations.   

Vulcan’s Forge is on at The Hive on Vittoria Street in the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter until 7th January 2022. It is open 10:00-15:30, Tuesdays-Fridays. Further address details and directions can be found here.