Black and white photograph from Vulcan's Forge showing a person wearing protective clothing standing in front of a furnace

Janine Wiedel’s book documents the last days of British industry

Originally presented as an exhibition at the end of the 1970s, Wiedel’s atmospheric images taken inside West Midlands factories are being revived in book form

New York-born documentary photographer Janine Wiedel has released a new book titled Vulcan’s Forge, which takes as its premise a body of work she made between 1977 and 1979. During this time, Wiedel held a bursary from West Midlands Arts, and used the money to travel around the area, documenting industrial workers and businesses. From potteries and jewellers, to coal mines and steel works, she sought to capture the full gamut of the industry.

Having already spent many years covering subjects such as the Irish travelling community, Greenham Common Women’s Camp, and BIPOC and Rastafarian groups in Brixton, Wiedel was well-suited to the endeavour. By 1977, she was an established name in the world of documentary photography, and skilled in her ability to get close to her subjects and to peel back the layers of the seemingly mundane.

Black and white photograph from Vulcan's Forge showing a person at work standing over steaming buckets
All images © Janine Wiedel⁠
Black and white photograph from Vulcan's Forge showing a person holding equipment standing in front of a pile of large chains

Accompanied by her campervan-cum-darkroom, Wiedel spent the next two years visiting factories and workshops all over the West Midlands, capturing the lives of the workers who kept everything running. “As I got deeper into my subject I began to feel that much of Birmingham and the West Midlands could well belong to Vulcan’s people: sons of fire, casting their thunderbolts,” recalls the photographer.

Once the heart of the industrial revolution, the work in this area was already in steep decline by the time she arrived, suffering greatly from years of underinvestment and competition from abroad.

Black and white photograph from Vulcan's Forge showing a person smoking a cigarette while working on making a metal chain
Black and white photograph from Vulcan's Forge showing people wearing workwear standing in a steam-filled room next to equipment and a ladder

As such, what we see in Wiedel’s photographs is the foreshadowing of total collapse. In fact, when the work was first exhibited at The Photographers’ Gallery in 1979, the British Journal of Photography’s review of the exhibition noted that “a good deal [of the industries documented] are already obsolete as far as the world’s great markets are concerned”.

Needless to say, what is captured in these images are crafts and processes that are either long gone or greatly changed from what they once were. In some respects, the workers in the photographs are the last of their kind, soon to fall victim to Thatcherite economic policies and widespread technological progress. However, despite this looming adversity, Wiedel’s subjects can be seen carrying on as always, toiling away in their factories, chatting with their friends, and honing their skills as craftspeople.

Black and white photograph from Vulcan's Forge showing two people wearing white uniforms facing away from each other in front of a bench covered in materials such as buckets
Black and white photograph from Vulcan's Forge showing three people wearing boiler suits and hard hats walking through an arched tunnel

“While it is a series documenting traditional industry, it is fundamentally about workers, and their relationships with each other. This is why most of the book you are holding consists of portraits,” writes author Josh Allen in the book’s foreword.

“Many of these are of individuals working, or in several cases clearly relaxed while taking an official or unofficial break. Others capture little groups of workers toiling collectively and helping each other out, sometimes posed, sometimes more candidly captured, engaged in the small social rituals common to any workplace.”

Black and white photograph from Vulcan's Forge showing a person in the foreground holding a pint in a pub, and two people in conversation standing next to a bar in the background
Black and white photograph from Vulcan's Forge showing a person in a suit and glasses dancing with someone in a polka dot sleeveless dress

Distant as this world may seem to a contemporary audience, what makes this book such a timeless piece of documentary work is the fact that so many of the goods made in these factories are still around today.

As Allen notes, “Almost every day you, as viewer of this work, might live in or pass through a building partially made from Bilston steel; go from time-to-time to secure something or somewhere with a sturdy length of Cradley chain; lovingly tend a classic car with parts stamped out in the shadow of the M6; or handle an old piece of crockery, china or jewellery which was turned by hands that Wiedel captured.”

Vertical black and white photograph from Vulcan's Forge showing single-storey buildings surrounding a tall work building jutting out between them

Vulcan’s Forge by Janine Wiedel is published by Bluecoat Press;