On the day I speak to Andrew Smith, his photographs are on show in Sheffield’s Winter Gardens — the black and white tones of his work set on rugged metal display stands which act as a sharp contrast against the leafy, succulent backdrop of the glass house interior. It’s a little snowdome of the Sheffield landscape in general, where heavy industry shares space with green parks and rolling hills.
His Steel Soul exhibition, and the book which has been released simultaneously to celebrate 100 years of stainless steel, tells the story of life in one of the city’s biggest, and most successful steel works — Forgemasters — through a series of abstract images. It is the culmination of a two-year project which saw him shooting in noisy, dirty factories to capture the different stages of steel, from white-hot liquid to rough, organic blobs, to smooth and crisp shapes.
Bosses at Forgemasters first approached Andrew having seen his work documenting industrial parts of the nearby Don Valley. The brief for the project was broad and flexible.
«I met the chief executive of Forgemasters, who is really into the arts and establishing links with artists,» says Andrew.
«He told me that a photographer from Germany had recently been into the company to take lots of corporate shots, but that wasn’t what he wanted from me.
«He said that he wanted my style, which was great, because I could take a picture of what I wanted how I wanted. It was an experiment on his part to see what came out the other end.»
Leaving creativity to Andrew, the project would take time and patience; working around a full time job in IT, his other photography projects, the weather and the factory’s working day.
Working in a dangerous environment, surrounded by heavy machinery and hot metal, posed a variety of challenges to Andrew. He invested in a Nikon 70-200mm to allow him to get closer to subjects which would otherwise be out of bounds.
He says: «I knew I wanted to get close. One of the things I wanted to do was take really explicit close-up shots of hot metal… almost pornographic shots of hot metal. So the lens got me close but you do have to be careful where you put your feet.»
Armed with a Nikon D300, his 70-200mm lens, a «workhorse» 17-55mm and a couple of filters, Andrew was able to capture just about everything he wanted. He had a tripod with him, but such was the ability of the 70¬200mm to cope with camera shake, he rarely used it.
The abstract intimacy of some of his shots was shaped by his love of his 50mm prime lens, he says.
«It makes you look properly at your subject matter, using a prime lens. That focal length is comparable with your eyesight too, which is good. When I look at what focal lengths I shoot most of my pictures at, it always seem to be between 35 and 50mm.»
His Kata bag, he declares, was «worth its weight in gold,» allowing him to protect his lenses and camera interior from the dust and dirt of the foundry and melt shop as he changed them.
Not everywhere in Forgemasters was dirty, dusty and noisy though. Some of the machine shops were spotlessly, somewhat clinically clean.
«It’s almost meditative in there — it’s so quiet and you can be hypnotised by these huge machines working,» he says.
His pictures tell the story of the different forms steel, and the machines which produce it, can take. The machine shop offered more modern, cubist shapes whereas in the foundry and melt shop the subjects were more tangled up and complex.
«Ultimately metal brings a sense of grandeur, because it is shiny a lot of the time,» he says. «But there is some fantastic stuff before they machine the metal which almost looks like wood — it’s scaley and almost knotted.»
A love of the work of black and white photographers from the 1950s and 60s such as Maurice Broomfield, Wolfgang Sievers and Walter Nurnberg lies deep in Andrew’s decision to make Steel Soul a largely colourless project. The result is a set of pictures which could have been taken at any point in the past 100 years, with the manufacturing process changing little in that time.
«Obviously they make metal more advanced with what they develop, but at the end of the day they are still just putting a load of scrap in a pot and heating it up — it really is brutal and elemental,» says Andrew.
«But I also really wanted to get across in the photographs that this is a flourishing industry and not a dead one. Forgemasters survived the decimation of the steel industry and it is still going strong.»
Steel Soul is available online at www.bymyi.com, priced at £22, including a free print.
A Personal Tale
I was fascinated to hear about how Andrew Smith became interested in Forgemasters having glared at the steelworks from the outside as he drove past over the years. Just like him, as I passed the huge, soot-stained brick buildings and dominating towers in the east side of Sheffield, I would glare at them like Charlie staring up at the Chocolate Factory. As a boy, these dark facades were straight out of Gotham City and I always dreamed of seeing what was inside of them. Thanks to Andrew’s work, I now know.
Andrew Smith is a self-taught photographer living in Sheffield. By day he works in information technology for a major bank, but his passion is photography. He has published three books under his BYMYI imprint, including two editions of Velo and Steel Soul.