This new piece by writer Josh Allen highlights the importance of Janine Wiedel’s new photography exhibition 'Vulcans Forge' now on show at The Hive in the Jewellery Quarter. The exhibition is a powerful and comprehensive showcase of her photographs that captured working people in some of the traditional industries in the Black Country, Staffordshire and Birmingham in the late 1970s.
Between 1977 and 1979 documentary photographer Janine Wiedel received a grant from West Midlands Arts to spend time capturing everyday life in the region. She chose to document workers and workplaces engaged in the region’s traditional industries. The work was published as a book and displayed as an exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery in London entitled Vulcan’s Forge. The exhibition also toured to the ATV Studios in Birmingham and the Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent.
Now, following recent partial exhibitions of the work at Blast! Festival in Sandwell and the Iron House in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter in 2019, the project in its entirety is being displayed in the region for the first time since the early 1980s. The work is being exhibited at The Hive in the Jewellery Quarter until 7th January 2022 (open 10:00-15:30, Tuesdays - Fridays).
One of Janine’s hopes for the exhibition is that it will lead those photographed as part of the project, their families, or others who know them; to get in touch with her. After nearly 45 years she is very keen to reconnect with those that she photographed. She tells me “I think that it is very important to give something back to those that we photograph, otherwise it seems like we are just taking from people”. This has always been an incredibly important part of her practice as a photographer. Whilst undertaking Vulcan’s Forge she says she returned to the workplaces where she photographed people to leave prints for them, however, she “has no idea whether they got them”, because she “just had to leave them with a manager”.
Today the industries Janine photographed in the late 1970s such as steelmaking in Bilston and Stoke-on-Trent, or deep level coal mining in North Staffordshire, no longer exist. Other crafts she documented like chain making in Cradley Heath, metal stamping in Aston and jewellery production in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter continue to be practised in those localities, but on a vastly reduced scale employing a fraction of the number of people.
Janine was always interested and curious to hear from those she photographed during the project, however, it was a few years ago when she began receiving e-mails from participants and their children and grandchildren, that she began seriously thinking about it. These participants and their families discovered the work online via Janine’s website where the photographs are listed.
She tells me that when the photographs were created in the 1970s, if the participants’ families saw them, their reaction could be one of alarm; at the often rundown, grimy and antiquated conditions they laboured in. On other occasions they would say to her, only half-jokingly, “I don’t suppose that you could also get one of him in a suit could you?”. She reflects that prior to digital photography, photography was something that most people reserved for very special occasions, not taking photographs of their everyday working lives.
This is also reflected in the Living Memory Project’s collection of photographs. Many of the participants in the Project shared photographs connected with their work, however, they are usually of work outings, events at social or sports clubs, or formally posed photographs of groups of colleagues. The day-to-day nitty-gritty of working life and the practice of the craft or other activities that workers undertook all day does not feature.
Time passing often grants what was once considered normal, even mundane, a fascinating patina of interest. Janine tells me that when children and grandchildren see pictures of their relatives at work they tend to marvel at the craft and the skill of their older relatives. Feeling a connection to the past and a sense of pride in their family’s historic crafts which they perhaps would not have grasped in quite so viscerally if they had not seen the photographs.
The power and ongoing resonance of the images has made itself known in other ways. A worker featured in the project alongside his father who was also employed by the same firm, got in touch with Janine to say that his father now has dementia, but that he still gets great enjoyment looking at her photos of his old workplace and former craft. The photographs possess the ability - despite the progress of the disease - to connect with a deep seated part of the man’s identity, bringing him comfort and enjoyment.
Other people Janine has reconnected with so far, include a former Birmingham metal stamper who is now a busker. The stepson of a metal worker, photographed waiting outside the factory gates, who is now a novelist and creative writing lecturer. Plus the daughters of Aston based mechanic Wally Crooks, who featured extensively in a documentary ATV made in 1978 about Janine’s work in the West Midlands. Wally has now returned to the sunnier climes of Jamaica, however, through his daughters who encountered the body of work and reconnected with Janine after nearly 45 years the connection has been reignited.
Through these flashes of reconnection, and the rekindling of interpersonal connections, Janine is steadily reconnecting with those she photographed. Reforging ties originally created in the very different world of the industrial midlands in the 1970s, is revealing a fascinating social and cultural history of Britain over the last five decades, whilst also saying so much about people’s lives, family ties and identities. It is through these that the ongoing importance of these old crafts, trades and ways of making a living, live on.