I was asked at an interview recently why I do what I do. “I like to work in manufacturing and industrial environments. The challenge of capturing the remarkable process of how something is created by man and machine is an appealing endeavor” was the short answer. In examining why this type of photography is appealing, I could think of two things from my past that might have remotely influenced me.
My father owned a roofing and siding company in the Milwaukee area and often times on a Friday night, I would, along with my brothers, go down to the warehouse to hang around while dad finished up inventory or quality control of product for the week. I liked the big warehouse, the gritty cement floors, the dim lighting, the huge trucks and the smell of tar and asphalt shingles stacked floor to 20 foot ceiling. The employees that were clocking in from the day’s jobs, with their tattoos, (when a tattoo meant rebellion), greasy pompadours and dirty clothes were always friendly to the boss’s kids. At the family supper table , the employees were only referred to by one name, (usually their last), McClendon, Keist, Striker, Majest. These names were but a few that were mentioned often and took on mythic qualities with stories of falls from a second story and finishing the work day, or a mysterious missing finger on the hammer hand of one of the old timers. When I finally saw these guys, I was in awe. These were real men. I knew Superman and Batman were fictitious but these guys were for real!
The business was in an industrial section of town and to get there we passed a concrete company, (where a fine white dust was always in the air, two blocks on either side), a wire factory on the corner where the doors were perpetually open, sparks flying 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and a salvage yard with a decrepit Model A mounted high on a sign pole that let the passer by know what they were about. As we passed the wire factory, I would always peer in to see if anyone was actually in the massive building, with it’s dirty green glass and sparks of hell spewing up and out. I never could make out people inside, only flashes of fire, flickering sparks and dim grey clouds. To a 9 year old, this all defined the real world concept of awesome.
So, I believe the industrial environment is something that I am drawn to because of a peculiar, strangely enchanted exposure to it at a young age. The visual challenge for me today is to capture an image that might tell the story of what the machine does, how the operator governs it, (human connection), and the engineering beauty of a process that is quite extraordinary.
When I work in a manufacturing environment, I use portable battery operated lighting. Nikon’s SB 900’s , set up in the staging area prior to the first shot. I also use Pocket Wizard radio slaves on each light. The days of heavy shoebox size lights and cords running in all directions are thankfully over for this type of work for me. I need to move quickly and not inhibit the company’s production while shooting. All of the images above have been taken while either packing up, but keeping the camera on; or walking back to the staging area after a wrap, while again, keeping the camera on and around my neck. Next month I’ll talk about a second influence; from the Rube Goldberg board game Mousetrap to the haunting stop-motion animation of the Brothers Quay.