The purpose of the assignment was to photograph a series of locks showing that the fundamental engineering of the UK canal system had not been modified over the years given that modern technology now governs much of the civil engineering processes today. Some locks have been electrified, particularly on the rivers, but most remain as they were, requiring manual input to work them.
To put this idea into context I then considered some of the pioneers of the 18th and 19th century, those engineers who designed and built the canal system.
The development of the canal system in the 18th century was driven by changes resulting from the industrial revolution and the need to move goods around the country as economically as possible. One of the first canals was commissioned by the Duke of Bridgewater, who owned coal mines at Worsley and needed to transport his coal, previously transported in carts, to be taken to the River Mersey more efficiently and cheaply. He commissioned James Brindley, a millwright, to design and build a canal. That canal still exists and in regular use: The Bridgewater Canal.
I searched a number of archives to try to find photographs of the locks showing how they were worked in the same way as today, without success. However, I found 2 photographs of the construction posted by John Nesbitt on Pinterest (origin unknown).
I also looked at the work of Bernhard and Hilla Becher. Both keen photographers with an interest in industrial landscape. They set out to record these structures in a detached way – thus if the structures were no longer required or irrelevant they would be demolished. But the Bechers’ photographs ensured the images survived.
“The Bechers’ purpose has always been to make the clearest possible photographs of industrial structures. They are not interested in making euphemistic, socio-romantic pictures glorifying industry, nor doom-laden spectacles showing its costs and dangers. Equally, they have nothing in common with photographers who seek to make pleasing modernist abstractions, treating the structures as decorative shapes divorced from their function.
The Bechers’ goal is to create photographs that are concentrated on the structures themselves and not qualified by subjective interpretations. To them, these structures are the ‘architecture of engineers’ and their pictures should be seen as the photography of engineers – that is, record pictures.
So, in 1959, the Bechers drove around the Ruhr in a van photographing blast furnaces, winding towers, gas tanks, cooling towers, water towers, lime kilns and framework houses. They would use ladders and scaffolding to achieve clear vantage points from which to make their pictures. Like technical drawings, these would feature front and side elevations.
Winding towers Germany, Belgium, France, 1965–98
My collection of photographs aims to achieve the same purpose. If at a later date locks are modified, or changed completely and the old technology is no longer used, my photographs will remain as a record of how they once were
Finally, I took my lock photographs on two separate days with very different weather conditions and lighting. My tutor suggested revisiting the contact sheets and creating two possible edits, one for each lighting condition. I tried using photoshop to carry out simple edits so that they all appeared to have been taken on the same day. However, I was not happy with the result, so I selected some different photos all taken on the same day. Here is the final selection: