Having walked the metalworking beat for a long time, I have seen lots of techniques and technologies used to produce the finest metal products. The pleasure of meeting and talking with many great people and industry leaders has complemented the great ride I’ve had through the metalworking industries during the decades. But through it all, a common theme was heard repeatedly, regardless of which shop floor on which I was standing. Inevitably, some executive, worker or supervisor would come up and say something like: “Metalworking is in our blood. What we make here takes as much art as science.”
Undoubtedly, the mass production of metal raw materials and products requires a mechanical and formulaic approach to production. And yet there is (and for millennia has been) a significant component of artisanship in the manufacture of metal products, whether they are alloyed, wrought, cast, machined, joined or just heated. Workers in these industries get a “feel” for the materials, processes and environments in which they work.
These workers are truly artisans in their own right, to be sure. But things really get good when professional artists make basic metalworking not their medium, but their subject. Over the years, I have viewed with admiration a number of classical-style paintings, prints and reproductions that depict basic metalworking processes. I even had the opportunity to commission a couple of pieces of cover art (both paintings). During the last century, with the advent and development of photographic techniques, photo images have also taken their place on gallery walls.
Such is the case with Andrew G. Smith, a U.K.-based photographer who recently published a photographic study of the Brightside Lane site of Sheffield Forgemasters International (a company FORGE profiled in May 2012). Smith, a Sheffield resident, developed an artistic interest in the industrial buildings he knew so well from the outside and shot a trilogy of textural images that were shown in the city.
Dr. Graham Honeyman, Sheffield Forgemasters’ CEO, happened to see these images and invited Smith inside the buildings for a more comprehensive photographic study. Smith shot his images from January 2011 to January 2013 and compiled them into a book entitled Steel Soul, a collection of monochromatic images that covers the four main processes that occurred at the site he was shooting: melting, casting, forging and machining. You can learn more about this book by visiting www.bymyi.com/SSPB.html, where you can sample some images (two of which are reproduced with permission here) or purchase a copy.
The intersection of industrial production and art is often too easily forgotten. Personally, I believe that those who see metalworking as art are to be applauded and encouraged. They lend an alternative view to the oft-harsh and dangerous tasks metalworkers must perform and help define a deeper aesthetic dimension that brings honor to those who wield metal for a living.