When I took an art history course about Modernism, one of the subjects that I most enjoyed learning about was the Modernist photographs of industry and urbanization in the 1920s and 1930s. The work of photographers such as Charles Sheeler, Paul Strand, and E. O. Hoppé showed the unexpected beauty and majesty of purely functional structures. And the work of photographers such as Lewis Hine showed the humanity of the workers whose contributions were often overlooked in celebrations of industrial and economic growth.
Open for Business, an exhibition that is currently touring the UK, contributes to this grand tradition of photography that explores industry and commerce. When I visited the UK in April, I was lucky enough to see this show – which I stumbled across entirely by chance, by wandering up to the third floor of the wonderful M Shed museum on Bristol’s harbour. Although Modernist industrial photography mostly focused on North America, Britain also has an extensive history of artistic work documenting commercial activities and structures. This is particularly fitting because England was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, which changed manufacturing and commerce all around the world, and Wales was the first industrial country in the world.
The Open for Business exhibition features the work of nine photographers associated with the famous Magnum Photos photographers’ co-operative. The photographers were assigned to visit nine UK cities and to document industrial and manufacturing activity in those cities.
The resulting pictures show everything from industries where products are still made individually by hand (hats, bicycle saddles) to highly mechanized or computerized forms of production (wind turbines, digital fabrication). And the exhibition also illustrates the people who work in these industries: in close-up portraits, doing their jobs, or posing in front of their workplace or the products they make.
What I found most striking about this show was the way that it humanized business. A lot of organizations talk about how “people are our greatest assets”, or words to that effect, but this exhibition really gets you to think about people at work, and how people interact with their work and with their workplaces. The exhibition also shows how even the most regularized and controlled manufacturing processes can still include breathtaking moments of visual awe. And, on a technical level, the photographs are stunningly composed and beautifully presented.
Open for Business is well worth seeing if you have the opportunity. It is at Bristol’s M Shed until June 21, and then moves to the last stop on its tour – the Street Level Gallery in Glasgow – from July 3 to August 27. If you don’t get to see the exhibition in person, the exhibition’s website has extensive amounts of material, including fascinating videos of each photographer talking about their experiences while taking the photos. And regular updates about the exhibition, and events associated with it, are posted on the Open for Business Facebook page.