Steel Works by Julian Germain: ‘a postmodern visual history writing’

January 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

There was a time when to be from Consett was to be almost a celebrity. Catapulted into the media spotlight – photographed and interviewed by every kind of journalist, analysed by economists and sociologists, the subject of television documentaries and academic studies. Now the vast steelworks site, grassed over and landscaped, awaits council inspiration. Of the proposed schemes, which have included a Category A prison, the most bizarre has been a tourist park for the elderly entitled “The Coming Of Age”.

from Steel Works (detail), Julian Germain

from Steel Works (detail), Julian Germain

The above description originates from the book, Steel Works: Consett, From Steel to Tortilla Chipspublished in 1989 to accompany the exhibition of the same title. Funded and presented by the Side Gallery in Newcastle, the project, by the English-born photographer Julian Germain, was a study of Consett in the North of England – ‘a town invented by four well-to-do gentlemen of Tyneside because of accessible mineral resources’27, becoming home to the largest opencast mine and steelworks in Britain. With its closure in the 1980s and the subsequent transformation of the site, the steelworks were completely dismantled involving the largest demolition project ever witnessed in Europe.

Germain employed diverse strategies of representation of the town and its community in order to re-present and re-assert, a sense and semblance of this once vibrant community. A page from Steel Works (above) is open to reveal a two-page, collage-like spread: a holiday photo-booth with a couple bedecked in sunglasses, the family and the family dog in the parent’s backgarden, groups of workers standing and sitting for the photographer, a smoke break, a tea break, and small samples of texts, ‘the factory lassies from Lancaster’ including ‘P. O’Leary’. The images appear haphazardly in display and somehow ‘speak’ to, of and about each other. A sense of a living community is portrayed. However, all are black and white and the clothes look ‘different’. It is not now.

from Steel Works, Julian Germain

from Steel Works, Julian Germain

Germain presents individual testimony, anecdotes and interviews alongside his use of visual materials (above). We are invited to partake in familial memory by recourse to personal archives and family albums. Displayed alongside, are images by Don McCullin, made for the UK newspaper, The Sunday Times in the 1960s (below).

from Steel Works, photographs by Don McCullin

from Steel Works, photographs by Don McCullin

Germain also incorporates the work of another photojournalist, Tommy Harris, a local whom in addition to holding a full-time job at the steelworks, was responsible for photographing the surrounding community for local newpapers in the 1950s and 60s. Harris’s use of a square format camera would mean including details that would later be cropped. Yet, ‘it is these chance elements in Tommy’s uncropped photographs that make his work so revealing’ (quoted from exhibition text).

from Steel Works, photograph by Tommy Harris

from Steel Works, photograph by Tommy Harris

In the image above , a solitary hand in the upper left hand corner grasps the union workers banner echoing the central motif of solidarity.


from Steel Works, photograph by Tommy Harris

The two women cling to the bedspread (above), stretched as a backdrop for a picture in the local paper, a daughter or a niece standing gracefully in the backyard. A sense of pride is evoked as both of the older women watch on, accompanied by a sense of purpose in their role, as this younger woman gazes out, towards somewhere. The project also included Germains’ own work in the region from the late 1980s. Through the ‘x’- marked glass of the image below, a labouring man with a carpenter belt shades his eyes and peers outwards and in doing so consciously or unconsciously implicates himself – this glass, t/his reflection, now part of a past or a possible future? As the final paragraph of the press release to accompany the opening of the exhibition, asked:

How do you define a community? The community of Consett has been defined and re-defined throughout its history…changing beyond recognition. The steelworks have been completely dismantled…what identity are people forming for themselves in the new Consett and how do they regard the past?

from Steel Works, photograph by Julian Germain

from Steel Works, photograph by Julian Germain

This work, collated by Germain, surveyed a period from 1910 until 1989 and has since been described as a ‘postmodern visual history practice’*. In a location where all physical traces of an industrial past had been removed, Germain constructed a social document of this local working community, through the reconstructive discourse emanating from the diverse representations presented, addressing an identity from the remnants and fragments of its visual and oral histories. More recently, George Baker’s description of the potential of photographs in the projects of the American artist Sharon Lockhart seems relevant and appropriate to the aforementioned projects and practices:

A genetic connection and return is contemplated, and the photographs emerge not so much as statements of appropriation and citation – proper to the debates carried on around photography at earlier moments of postmodernism – but as documents of historical remnants, continuities between past and present, the survival of what seems most precarious and impossible to contemplate in the current historical moment. (2008: 7)


Steel Works (installation view), Multivocal Histories, Noorderlicht Festival, Netherlands, 2009 (image courtesy Noorderlicht)

In 2009, twenty years following its publication, the curator and educator, Bas Vroege, included Steel Works in the exhibition, Multivocal Histories, at the Noorderlicht Festival in the city of Groningen in the Netherlands. Germain’s project was identified by Vroege as the central focal points for the conceptual framing of the exhibition in his selection of the projects included. Drawing on the history of montage, in the ethnographic sense, multivocality, is a critical representational strategy which acknowledges the many voices and multi-linearity of everyday experience in the construction of research. Vroege seeking more hybrid, transdisciplinary and ‘slow’ ways of working, writes in the accompanying catalogue:

Without the intention of doing so, Germain thus gave birth to a photographic practice that could be labelled ‘postmodern visual history writing’. Its essence resides in the fact that no one voice can be authoritative: history is by its nature the product of multiple voices and of recombining records from different moments in time. Or, as Frits Gierstberg recognized in Perspektief No. 41 in 1991: “By juxtaposing different types of photography Germain brings up for discussion their separate claims to authenticity and historical reality within the presentation itself”.

*Germain’s practice was described as such in the brochure accompanying a conference titled ‘Work’. This was the inaugural event organised by the International Photography Research Network (IPRN), an initiative of the University of Sunderland, England (9-11 September 2005). Germain was present as a guest speaker
*Quote from text that accompanied the exhibition, ‘Steel Works: Julian Germain’ (Side Gallery, Newcastle, England, 1989)
*Quote from text that accompanied the exhibition, ‘Tommy Harris: Photographs of the County Durham steel town from 1949-1979’ (Side Gallery, Newcastle, England, 2003)
*Baker, G. (2008) ‘Photography and Abstraction’, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, article as part of year long project, WordsWithoutPictures, now available as a publication here

A version of this text was included as part of my practice-led doctorate thesis, the abstract of which can be viewed here

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