Mark Power / Derby / Sunderland
“On reflection, I perhaps made a mistake by beginning my project with a visit to the extraordinary photographic archive held in the National Railway Museum in York. There (along with what is thought to be the first ever child’s drawing of a steam train, preserved in a letter from a young boy to his sister) I was shown dramatic images of the Derby Railway Works from the latter part of the 19th Century and the early part of the next.
Of course, I knew the modern Bombardier site would look nothing like the world portrayed in those wonderful documents. For a start, it’s much smaller today. There are no steelworks belching out dramatic black smoke, no workers doused in soot. The fact is, modern Bombardier could hardly be more different: it’s a clean, tidy, and surprisingly quiet* assembly-line producing, on average, about one train per day, with parts arriving from all over the world. It’s a challenge to make something of this, especially in the knowledge of what the site used to be like.
So, rather than trying to describe exactly what they do there now (because, at times like these, I’m reminded of photography’s weaknesses; of all the things it can’t do) I’ve instead concentrated on tiny details of the process: flash-lit pictures of human effort, concentration and skill made theatrical by the black backgrounds, seen alongside large-format black and white images of the site’s exterior.
One of my favourite photo-books is Lee Friedlander’s ‘Cray’ (later reworked and expanded with some of Friedlander’s other industrial projects into the more easy-to-find ‘At Work’). ‘Cray’ shows us the building of the Cray-1 supercomputer, then the fastest in the world. The employees are seen consumed by the paraphernalia of their work, as man and machine morph into one. Later, Chris Killip’s ‘Pirelli Work’ did much the same thing but (perhaps) with even greater elegance. These books are my inspiration, from which I’m trying to find my own way.
My assistant on the project, Murray Ballard, has been collecting sounds on site, concentrating on the plethora of radios pumping out romantic pop music; little islands of sound in a (mainly male) sea. His microphone slowly moves towards each radio, lingers a little, then moves on. Collectively, these create a soundscape rooting the work firmly in the present.
I’m also fascinated (as I often am) by the words and phrases we are finding across the site… strange health and safety notices mixed with the aims and objectives of the day. Although written in English, I have no idea what most of them mean: they resemble secret codes decipherable only by a select few, reminding me that I’m only a visitor passing through. I’m going to make use of this in some way, I’m sure, perhaps as some graphic ‘backdrop’ to the pictures themselves.
I’m trying to conceive the work as a complex, multi-faceted exhibition.”
* Apart from the radios!
Power is renowned for his long-term, self-initiated projects alongside a number of large-scale commissions in the industrial sector. He is Professor of Photography at the University of Brighton.