My father, the man who put glamour into industry

The Times

April 16, 2011


It takes a special eye to make arduous industrial processes and perilous manual labour seem sexy, epic and mysterious. But in the 1950s and 1960s the photographer Maurice Broomfield, who died in October, aged 94, of congestive heart failure, transformed places such as the Ford plant at Dagenham and an ICI salts division works into what looked like Hollywood film sets, its workers heart-throbs. Molten metal being poured from a canister appears luminous and magical, railworkers laying track outside Hinkley Point power station swaggered like buccaneering heroes.

His son, Nick Broomfield, the noted documentary-maker — of Kurt & Courtney, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer and soon a documentary following Sarah Palin — is curating a 25-picture show of his father’s work at the Public Gallery in West Bromwich. The original negatives that he discovered in a filing cabinet at one of Maurice’s two homes in Hampshire were so badly decomposed that they “smelt like vinegar”. Nick and a team from the Victoria and Albert Museum, who have restored Maurice’s archive, had to wear special masks to handle them.

Nick’s memories of his father mirror a truly wonderful afternoon that I spent with Maurice seven years ago. Then 88, and look- ing a tanned 20 years younger, slowing down was not on the agenda: “I want to go further with new technology. I have a laptop, which I’ve mastered. So next I want a digital camera.”

Maurice had been hungry for new experiences and curious about the world ever since he was a young boy growing up in Derby. Rapped across the knuckles by the Latin teacher, he enjoyed art and geography at school and was influenced by an encounter with a tramp sitting under a tree. “You must do better than me,” the tramp told him. “There are many wonderful books to read.” But Maurice said the tramp had left him “with the feeling that he had this most wonderful freedom and I didn’t”.

Maurice’s father was a lacemaker who also produced intricate diagrams of screws and bits for railway locomotives and carriages. Maurice left school at 15 and worked on the assembly line at Rolls-Royce. At 18 he asked his bosses what his possibilities were and was asked in return what his father did at the factory. Maurice’s father didn’t work there, but the answer told Maurice, chillingly, all he needed to know about a life unfolding on the factory floor. Evening art classes at Derby College of Art proved his “saviour”, and he and a friend travelled across Europe photographing students in postwar cities.

Maurice, who was self-taught, ignored the instructions that came with the camera, such as “on a sunny day, stand with the sun over your right shoulder”. Instead, he discovered that “if you turn the camera into the sun, you might get flare and make terrible mistakes, but it could result in an exciting picture”.

Nick says that this echoed his father’s more general “homespun philosophy”. Nick is mostly teetotal now because of his father’s zeal for getting him and his friends drunk when he was a teenager. A recommendation had led to Maurice’s first commission from ICI to photograph a factory. Nick recalls going to photograph a lead factory with him when he was 15. “It was like Dante’s Inferno. There was molten lead, big sheets of lead which when folded would produce air bubbles and big bits of lead would fly across the factory. Nobody was wearing any protection, there was no health and safety.” These sorties with his father served as an “apprenticeship” for the inquisitive, confrontational documentaries that he went on to make. Maurice was also “exceptionally close” to Nick’s son, Barney, a film-maker who — with his father executive-producing — has made a film, Albino United, about albino soccer players in Tanzania. “Barney loves Maurice’s pictures and loved Maurice,” says Nick. “He inspired him.”

Maurice would treat the factories as stage sets, Nick says, putting attractive people in shot, even if they weren’t the ones charged with the task he was photographing, and ruthlessly recrafting backdrops to suit his own perfectionist vision. “He was hugely athletic and if the shot involved scaling a 200ft ladder, so much the better,” Nick says. “Unfortunately for them, he expected the same of his poor assistants.”

Maurice told me that his inspiration was Joseph Wright, the 18th-century artist famed for paintings such as An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, which showed the new machinery of the Industrial Revolution lit by singular sources of light, usually a candle or the Moon. Wright, like Maurice, was from Derby. “I love lighting,” Maurice told me. “It changes everything. It creates moods; it’s like a painting material. Take two people assembling a bearing in a corrugated iron shack. If I show them in a complete environment, that is not going to do any credit to the product they are making. So I would overlight the subject and underlight the background so that it went pitch black. The pictures were not about what I left in but what I left out.” Painters were his touchstone. “Vermeer would paint a scene in the foreground, then an arch, then another picture beyond that,” Maurice said. “I always aimed for that composition.”

There was a politically sensitive knot at the heart of Broomfield’s photography: his commissions came from the factories, and the reality was often far from epic and sexy. Broomfield’s first wife, Sonia (“a diehard communist”, according to Nick), who died in 1982, quizzed her husband hard on this. “Everything on their faces signalled that they were thinking of clocking off at five and then retirement 30 years hence. This, to me, was the wrong way of living,” Maurice told me of the workers. “Factory work reduces the essence of the meaning of life.” But he glorified it? “I had a responsibility towards the company. I wasn’t a news photographer.”

Nick says that Maurice was a romantic and had “immense respect” for factory workers. Maurice told me: “They had tremendous integrity and ability. At times I was torn. I once came across a blind man whose job it was to lift objects from one conveyor belt to another at a fork between the two. The picture I took of him haunted me for a long time. He was holding a rectangular plastic object, which, against his body, made a silhouette of the Cross.”

Eventually, Maurice stopped taking pictures and fed his itinerant, questing spirit, travelling the world on small and large boats and visiting Mexico and the North Sea oilfields. Sonia’s death left him a “zombie”, Maurice told me. Nick recalls a house “grinding to a halt, the washing machine cold cycle stopped working, the oven door wouldn’t close”. Maurice remarried in 1986, to an artist called Suzy, and took up painting. He admired the “social thread” in Nick’s movies, he told me, though even this buccaneer told his son to “be careful” when following around his inevitably difficult subjects. Nick’s film on Sarah Palin, which he hopes to release in the autumn as well as show on Channel 4, records him visiting Alaska and the evangelical community in which she grew up. “I tracked down all the people she trod all over to get to where she did,” Nick says. “She’s been very shifty about appearing, but she does a bit.”

Barney is working on a film about the “new colonisation of Africa”, with Hubert Sauper, the documentary-maker who directed Darwin’s Nightmare, the Oscar-nominated film about the environmental and social cost of the fishing industry in Tanzania. I say to Nick that there is a resonant lineage linking the three generations of Broomfield men, not only in their love of still and moving images, but in their collective spirit of inquiry. Nick laughs. “Absolutely. Maurice underplayed all his ailments, such as his arthritis. You’d hear from him, suddenly mixing with tribes in the North West Frontier of Pakistan.”

Maurice died quickly, Nick says, his voice clotting. “It took ten days. I was with him. But typically for him, he left a message saying, ‘I just called to tell you I have such good news: I’m going into hospital for a blood transfusion, in case you were trying to get in touch with me. Let’s see each other when I get home’. Of course, it was anything but good news.”

Nick intends to keep Maurice’s pictures in public circulation as a legacy. “Money isn’t the point,” he says. “I want them to be seen. Whatever you think politically, they do stand for a time after the Second World War when there was that optimism in what British industry could achieve and aspire to before the big corporations took over. There was that hope for a better world, not the one we’ve got, where the focus is on who Britney Spears is having sex with.”

And yes, you look at Maurice Broomfield’s pictures with utter wonder. He did that tramp under the tree proud.