Storying Sheffield

Steel stories – initial thoughts

Steel Stories is a current project in which three Sheffield-based photographers and film-makers are producing visual narratives of the steel industry in Sheffield. In this blog post, Andy Brown describes the beginnings of his work for the project.

In beginning to consider what I wanted to achieve for the Steel Stories project, my initial thoughts were shaped by what I knew I wanted to avoid. There is, to my mind, more than enough photography of ‘little mester’ style craftsmen working with steel in Sheffield, standing by benches covered in steel shavings or next to small grinding wheels and producing cutlery, jewellery or homeware. Such images are widely available. There have also been two major exhibitions in Sheffield in the last year showcasing the range of products made with stainless steel, and documenting the development of stainless steel over the last 100 years.
I intend to produce work that focuses on aspects of the steel industry in Sheffield that are less likely to have been seen by the person in the street; to show people things that will engage them. An important part of this involves researching the history of the steel industry. The photographer Simon Roberts, at a lecture at Hallam University in 2012, said that a photographer’s principal currency is the ideas they have. This is something that resonated with me; it is ideas that are really being communicated through photography. Any worthwhile photographic project must start with careful thought and research.
Initially, then, I wanted to talk to people. At this stage I had no real idea of what I was hoping to find, and instead wanted to see if any ideas were sparked by chatting to people involved with the steel industry. I talked to Ken Hawley, an 86 year-old tool collector, expert and curator of the Ken Hawley Tools Collection housed at Kelham Island Museum and author of the brilliantly-titled book The Ken Hawley Experience. I chatted to a disillusioned little mester, one of the last small cutlery-makers working near John Street (the whole area used to be given over to cutlery manufacture). And I went to talk to Chris Hudson, managing director of the cutlery and fancy goods manufacturer Chimo Holdings.
One of the things that Chris showed me were some old product catalogues of silverware, probably from the early 1990s. I am a big fan of ‘dated’ photography, and immediately loved the product images I found. I was struck by the contrast between how similar the products were to what would be considered high-end silverware today (although there are a couple of lovely anachronisms such as the silver after eight holder), and the manner in which they are photographed:

I love ‘dated’ photography because it tells us so much about how our society changes. If you only familiarize yourself with photography from the past that is now considered to have aesthetic merit, it can be difficult to be aware of how even the recent past is so selectively edited (both consciously and by changing tastes). The work of Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Herb Ritts, Man Ray, and other photographic giants, if studied in isolation, can give the impression of a neat linear progression of taste, with the ‘good stuff’ of the past dovetailing with the ‘good stuff’ of the present. Robert Frank, incidentally, is a good case in point demonstrating the non-linearity of taste – his work The Americans is now considered one of the most important bodies of work in photography, but was universally critically mauled on its 1958 publication.
Images from the past that were once the epitome of taste and sophistication and yet that now look hilarious seem to me to give a specific sense of delight when they are viewed. The image below is a detail from a poster guide to professional lighting techniques that I own:

Images such as this (and the silverware examples above with their crushed velvet and their delicately-placed single roses) tangibly depict how ideas of sophistication and ‘glamour’ change so rapidly in a consumerist society. I believe that they also have a particular resonance because of the peculiar nature of the information overload we are currently experiencing. It is simply no longer possible to keep up to date with any aspect of culture – the sheer number of Facebook photography groups, Twitter feeds, Tumblrs and other blogs that I try to follow demonstrate that quite forcibly. Crucially, though, the depth of our collective cultural attention has never been more shallow. Images, ideas, and music are now all passé when they are a few days old; in this climate, images from the past hundred years look peculiarly fresh. By being old, they are something new.
I decided to research the availability of catalogues of steel products catalogues and leaflets, with a view to curating a series of images of everyday items illustrating how much the marketing of such products has changed. An initial meeting with Cheryl Bailey at the Sheffield Archive Service proved very fruitful. I was able to view catalogues and leaflets for all sorts of steel products produced in Sheffield. Given the breadth of possible items, and mindful that I want to curate a coherent series of images that will hopefully be of interest to a wide range of people in Sheffield, I have decided to focus on home and tableware. Initial indications are that there are over 200 of such catalogues available to me. Although there are still some issues to address (eg issues of copyright), I am confident that this collection will allow me to produce a very strong series of 10-15 images from the past 100 years of photography being used in advertising. I envisage producing large images of each advert – perhaps A1.
Here are a couple of examples of my initial finds:

This is one of three bodies of work I hope to produce for Steel Stories. I will describe the other ideas at a later date. One final point; it might initially seem strange for a photographer to plan to exhibit a body of work that he has not created. I will certainly be producing images for at least one of my planned series for Steel Stories. However, an important photographic skill, in my opinion, is to be able to decide when not to take photographs. There are more than enough photographs in the world already. In 1976, the critic and director of photography at MoMA John Szarkowski observed that the world now contained more photographs than bricks. In 2012, it is estimated that 380 billion photographs were taken. We now take more photographs every two minutes than were produced in the 1800s. There is a skill in curating a set of images that overlaps with the skills involved in creating a new body of work. This sort of work is not without precedent; Martin Parr produced a wonderful collection of postcard images of holiday parks in 2002, and has curated and edited over 30 books. It is my opinion that allowing people to see how photography has been used to advertise steel homeware over the past hundred years will be considerably more interesting, and will communicate something much more profound about photography, than would adding to the number of photographs that exist of grizzled men grinding things.
To read more about Steel Stories click here.
To see some of Andy’s work go to