Soundtrack Of A Photograph, Part 17

Industrial Views

“Sitting in the evening, 

Dreaming of the old times

When a job was there for the steady and strong”

Well it has been a hectic time for me the last 6 weeks or so. After 14 years of living in Manhattan my wife and I have moved to Queens now, and are finally settling down to the point where I can think about writing a new blog. After the autobiographical nature of the last four-part blog series, I thought a return to one single topic might be called for, so once again I returned to that notebook I carry with me now to help me remember fleeting thoughts in the hope that they may inspire me later on. The word I put in the notebook a few weeks ago, when I was slogging back and forth between the old and new apartments lugging boxes and bags and trying to summon up untapped reserves of energy to combat the exhaustion and stress of moving was certainly reflective of the overall look of my new neighborhood. Likewise, it is also a word that describes some of my favorite subject matters in my own photography, as well as by other photographers. Finally it is the title of an album by the artists that are providing the soundtrack portion of this blog. That word is very descriptive in it’s simplicity and yet has a universal connotation with both the good and bad aspects with with which it is associated. To avoid any further suspense, the word in question is ‘Industry.’

Though the word industry can now be used to describe any field under one particular banner  (for example, the Entertainment, Aeronautics,  or Hospitality Industry, to name just a few) for the purposes of this blog when I mention the word, I mean it to be about industry in the more historical and physical sense. Days driven by large noisy machinery in massive factories and human blood and sweat rather than by microprocessors in a sterile laboratory. Of towns that were built around one particular industry, which everyone had a connection to. Though manufacturing and industry are still very much around these days, it somehow feels different now. Gradually plants underwent a change from employing nearly everyone in a town, to operating with as few employees as necessary now. The jobs went from hard back breaking labor to being less physical, with machinery guided by computers and automation rather than by an actual person. Though the health and safety of those employees has greatly improved as a result compared to the old days, the loss of jobs and more modern equipment also meant the buildings and structures that were part of those plants were gradually boarded up and more often than not, fell by the wayside and went into disrepair. Without getting into the political side, the golden age of industry effectively disappeared as a result.

 “Now gone is dirt and gone is strife, and gone is struggle,  and gone is life”

In a way, the decline of those industries lent itself to a new form of photography that most people would refer to as industrial photography.  Living in an urban environment, when I began getting serious about photography, I soon realized that this form appealed to me. Though the phrase industrial photography can mean photos of active factories, mines or power plants, in this blog I mean for it to be about industrial decline. Abandoned warehouses and factories, strewn with broken glass and litter. Crumbling smokestacks and loading dock doors that once brimmed with activity now shuttered and empty, metal doors clanging in the wind. Massive parking lots that now lie empty, except for the occasional windblown leaf or trash and “protected” by fences that barely stand amidst the overgrown weeds. Buildings constructed so solidly that they remain in some sort of stasis in the hopes that one day the workers will come back and the plants will open again.  A reminder that it wasn’t just the workers that were strong and resilient. Those buildings were pretty solid as well.

The appeal in that sort of photography for me has been in the barrenness and loneliness of the landscape. It is stark and bleak, and not beautiful in the traditional sense. Yet there is a beauty inherent to scenery like that somehow. Sure a photograph of a beautiful meadow, flowers in full bloom moving wistfully in a light breeze on a sun drenched spring day has its place. Or a mountain scene with the  brilliant first light of the morning hanging over the mountain peak and descending to the valley floor, Perhaps a photo of a serene lake with trees surrounding it and a cool mist drifting upwards. These types of photos exude a happy emotion. They may be of a place you have never been to yourself, but you view them and think-ah, bliss! Or they may remind you of a place you have already been to, and the viewing of the photo keeps it fresh in your mind. Quite often I change my desktop on my work and home computers, smartphone, and social media pages for this exact reason.  But those bleak and more urban photographs of decrepit post-industrial era landscapes have a power on the senses and emotions too. I find it hard to define, but whereas those photos of the meadow or the mountains bring happiness, the urban shot is defined by a certain degree of sadness, and loneliness. We know it isn’t scenic in the traditional sense, but it is scenery, and elicits a response.

When I was younger and my parents were driving us around the New York area, I have fleeting memories of seeing some of that large industry still in existence.  Two examples stick with me particularly. In Mahwah, New Jersey there was a Ford Motors Plant, which to my young eyes had the biggest parking lot I had ever seen. The opening line to Bruce Springsteen’s song Johnny 99 mentions this plant actually (which Johnny Cash later covered and used as the album title as well). Then there was the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer plant in Newark, famed for the large bottle of Pabst perched high above the building, tantalizing anyone who drove by it on the highway for years.  In time both of those plants closed and met the sort of fate I describe above. There were obviously many more, coming from such an urban environment, but those stuck in my mind I think because you could clearly see the sites as you drove by. You could see the massive complex behind those gates in production and imagine what those assembly lines looked like at work.

“Got to keep the production rolling”

Later on, I attended college in Worcester, Massachusetts, as I have mentioned in previous blogs. Worcester was then, and still has the feel of an industrial town now. There was much in the way of fading and abandoned industry throughout the city when I went to college, ranging from former textile mills to the famed Worcester Dining Cars (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worcester_Lunch_Car_Company). In my senior year of college I took part in a class that really helped me appreciate the history of industry by way of a company that once operated in Worcester. The class was called Development Of American Communities, and rather than being a standard class with lectures, exams and papers, was instead a years long research project by the professor into the communities of Worcester. We went through census information and other city documents to learn about the actual people living in Worcester at the time. Roughly speaking, that was the beginning of the 20th Century. Each class covered another facet of life in the city at that time, and cumulatively added to the data already collected previously.  So it was that when I took the class that I learned that Worcester was once home to the largest concentration of Swedish immigrants in New England (by way of Ishpeming, Michigan at first). The chief reason that brought them to Worcester was for work in a company called Washburn and Moen.

Part of Washburn and Moen’s Northworks complex as it looks today

 “Piston, pulley, shaft and spindle, every spool and reel”

In some modern day circles there could be a vague element of cynicism in this era of WiFi and satellite TV and mobile phones in thinking that the manufacture of wire could be considered a critical industry, but not long after opening in 1831 Washburn and Moen became the largest and most successful manufacture of wire in the entire United States. Over the years they produced everything from barbed wire to telegraph wire to piano wire. They even produced crinoline, used to make hoop skirts, a de rigueur fashion accessory for any discerning lady of the 19th century. Anyone who ever visits Worcester and walks around downtown for a few hours would see remnants of some of the old mills and factories. On Grove Street, near the heart of downtown, a portion of one of the old Washburn and Moen facilities still remains to this day. In researching Washburn and Moen for the class we came to understand the importance the company had to the people of Worcester. We pored over documents showing average wages at the company in relation to the cost of living at the time. The realization of all that data showed that though the main workforce at a plant such as Washburn and Moen would never be considered wealthy in their lifetimes, it sustained their existence through the years. Thousands of people were employed at the company and it no doubt fueled the local economy for years. Gradually the changes began to occur to companies like these. The first was in 1899 when the company became part of the larger conglomerate of American Steel & Wire (later to become US Steel). Gradually priorities shifted and by the 1970’s the decline forced the plants to close completely.

That sort of decline was not unique to Worcester of course, and happened in towns and cities like Worcester all across America. Of course there are still active plants and industries that are still going strong even to this day, but all to often where once there was a boom was now a bust. It was not just in the United States either, but throughout the industrialized nations. Though the types of industry, and the operations may have been different, places like Great Britain also felt the effects of decline. It is at this point where the music for this installment comes in.

“O we’re people, not a mob, and we only want a job”

In 1997, Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson (no relation) released an album called ‘Industry.’ It is an album of songs and instrumentals grouped around the theme of Industry. As Richard Thompson himself was quick to point out in the liner notes, it was not meant to be a history of industry, but was rather “impressions of industry…and the transition from industrial to post-industrial.” Half the album are songs written by Richard covering a range of themes, while the other half are some wonderful jazz inspired tunes written by Danny which are reflective of the era. Both the songs and instrumentals came after extensive research from both Richard and Danny.

Richard Thompson is of course the masterful guitarist, songwriter and singer who got his start with Fairport Convention.  His former band mate Ashley Hutchings once introduced him on stage by saying that everyone had beaten him to the book of superlatives in writing about Richard’s music, and I feel much the same right now.  Suffice it to say that in a long and varied career, Richard has remained a vital artist. Always trying different things, always experimenting, and never settling. The songs are real and often times brutal, the guitar playing is astounding, and often fierce. Much of the same can also be said about master double bass player Danny Thompson, who also got his start on the British folk scene in the 1960’s with the imaginative band Pentangle. If one can sum up a career as far reaching and vast as Danny’s with a few words, then just allow me to say that it would take me numerous blogs to cover but a portion of the music and artists he has played with over the years. The distinctive and clear lines of his bass playing are easily recognized. When you talk about double bass players now and in the future, the name Danny Thompson will always loom large.

The reason the album works so well is in that trade off back and forth between the songs and the instrumentals. The songs cover a lot of ground, from working in the steel mills, to the role of women during the industrial revolution together with songs about plant closings and unemployment. There are elements of sentiment, and elements of true vitriol. The song “Lotteryland” is classic Richard Thompson, blending the reality along with a biting sense of humor mixed in is a good example-

“That’s the place I used to work

When I was a wild young Turk

It’s now the Museum Of Industry

Schoolkids get in for free”

The instrumentals are evocative of the general era the album covers. Complex tones played by a skilled band, at times quiet and contemplative, at others loud and percussive, almost like the big machinery that used to be part of industry. The album as a whole shines, testament to the skill of the players, but most especially because of the work put into the project by Richard and Danny. It was difficult choosing the music I wanted to feature here. Just like with Rosanne Cash’s The River & The Thread album I wrote about in Part 13, I entertained selecting the entire album to be the Soundtrack Of A Photograph for this installment. In the end however I decided to narrow it down to one song by Richard, and one instrumental by Danny.

For the song I chose Big Chimney, a rocking song about working in a steel mill. For me it has always had a direct connection to Worcester and the legacy of Washburn and Moen in the churning, relentless rhythm. The modern equivalent of dirty and noisy machinery comes to life with electric guitar, drums and horns producing an industrial type sound.  For the instrumental I chose Danny’s tune New Rhythms for much the same reason. It ties in many of the themes and passages throughout the album. There is Danny’s walking bass runs together with Richard’s guitar together with violin, Northumbrian pipes, and brass merged into one cohesive tune somehow. Like all of the other songs on Industry, it transports you back in time to the industrial era itself.

Though it may have been considered a side project by some, it is in truth a very solid piece of art by two musicians who have already provided so much enjoyment in their lengthy careers. When I began formulating ideas for this blog, and keying in on my own thoughts on industry, there was only one album that could successfully help convey some of my ideas together with my photographs. Partly that is because it is about industry in general, and not a specific focus. It is also because like a lot of other things I have written about in other blogs, it was one of those times when you realize that other people are interested in things you thought you only were. Lastly I think there is sometimes a perception that the only way we can remember or relive moments of the past is through an old photograph. As a photographer I certainly hope that some of my photos will provide that kind of service someday. But so does music. In the right hands, and with the right ideas, the music can be just as evocative, just as telling, and just as apt in bringing an older era to life.  So it is that Industry, by Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson is a very fitting choice for this installment of Soundtrack Of A Photograph.

Drifting Through The Days, Lotteryland, Big Chimney, Saboteur, Sweetheart On The Barricade-Written By Richard Thompson

Chorale/New Rhythms-Written And Arranged By Danny Thompson

All photographs by Robert P Doyle All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via robpatdoy@hotmail.com for details.

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2 thoughts on “Soundtrack Of A Photograph, Part 17

  1. Hey Rob. I am more with you on the photographs than the soundtrack on this one. Industry is not an album I have ever warmed to much, though there are a couple of tracks that I like. Decaying industrial sites on the other hand have forlorn beauty that is very photogenic. I feel the same way about abandoned railway stations, which connects to one of your earlier blogs and also about the ruined architecture of the second world war, of which there is still a surprising amount in Europe and even in the UK (old barracks, airfields, POW camps etc). Great read as always.

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    1. Thanks Al. What is funny about Industry the album is that I almost never reach for it when browsing CD’s. Or scrolling through the Ipod for that matter. But when I sit down and commit to listen to it in it’s entirety, I really enjoy it, and get wrapped up in the entire scope of the project. The notes to the album were helpful in this regard for this blog. But even without the music there is that forlorn beauty (wish I had thought of that phrase myself) that exists. I really tried to think about why we feel this way, and the blog was an attempt to discover why we find these type of photos so engaging. In the end I think I realized that there is some sort of societal connection to those old sites. We know they were once brimming with activity and I think we wish they still were. Your mention of the old barracks reminds me of a great b&w episode of The Avengers ’66. It took place entirely on an abandoned air force base. Untypically for the show it looked to have been filmed at an actual base, replete with barracks and hangars rather than a studio backlot. One of my favorite episodes actually. Thanks for the support as always. I skimmed through your new one just now, but will really sit down and read it tonight or tomorrow. I know nothing of the topic so I always look forward to reading about something new!

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