Review – Open for Business at The Science Museum

UK. Derby. Bombardier. Train production. (From 'Open for Business') March 2013.
Bombardier. Derby. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Mark Power, Magnum Photos

I’ve always been a big advocate of photographers making work in their own backyards. Apart from in a few special cases the old model of the dashing photojournalist flying off to distant climes seems archaic and increasingly redundant. So it’s nice to see nine (mostly British) members of the Magnum collective taking a close look at the UK in their latest group project. Open For Business brings together images photographed across the country, highlighting British industry in the widest sense, from small family run firms to multi-national corporations, and from nano technology to the construction of super-carriers. The exhibition is now touring around the country and London’s Science Museum is the latest venue.

Each photographer has a cluster of images on display from their selected region, a fraction I’m told of the total number made for the project (different sets of images will be on display at different touring locations). Each clusters typically focuses on several different companies in a related sector. Mark Power for example looked at the Nissan and Bombardier factories, which produce cars and trains respectively, but are visually pretty similar. Starting off with a visit to the archive of the National Railway Museum in York, Power drew inspiration from some of the epic photographs in the archive recording the height of British heavy industry. Rather than try to replicate this scale the photographs he produced do the opposite, focusing in on details within the cavernous spaces of the factories. They’re a little like Chris Killip’s wonderful earlier photographs of Pirelli tyre factory workers, but are generally less loaded with judgement.

For another example of a very consistent display, Jonas Bendiksen focused on the wool trade in Bradford, something which has become increasingly high tech in recent years. His photographs are well executed examples of the people at work genre, with little stand out moments, like a muscled arm reminded us quite how physically demanding many industries remain, despite advances in technology and automation. It’s easy to forget (until you have to do something like carry a pile of bricks a short distance) how much even the developed world still depends on manual labour. The best thing about Bendiksen’s display is the inclusion of video playing in three LCD monitors which look exactly like the black picture frames that house his stills. I’ve seen this done many times before but it works particularly well here, these small snatches of video are beautifully shot and integrate rather seamlessly into the larger display of photographs.

In other cases though the contrast between the companies a photographer has looked at is enormous. Martin Parr photographed Aardman Animation, best known for producing the Wallace and Gromit films (a very English topic which Parr would seem well suited to documenting). However next to these are photographs he took at multi-national arms firms like BAE Systems. This contrast has the potential to make some interesting comments about the direction of British industry, and could have raised the important question of the cost that profit sometimes comes at. It’s a baton which is more or less picked up by one or two of the photographers (for example I think it’s present in Peter Marlow’s photographs, which again hint at the physical demands of industry), but isn’t really taken up by the exhibition as a whole. Instead this variety in some of the displays becomes probably the only really notable weakness of the show, because it can feel inconsistent.

I have to say that if I’d wandered in to this exhibition without reading any of the information on the wall I probably wouldn’t have guessed it was a show by members of Magnum. That’s not to say the work on show is particularly innovative or difficult to grasp, but it is certainly more interesting than what I’m used to seeing from the collective. If you want evidence of that, Bruce Gilden’s photographs from the Tate and Lyle factory are, brace yourselves, actually in colour. Besides being a showcase of British industry then the show also serves to demonstrate Magnum’s members trying different things. This is good news for the cooperative, because although it might be have been a trailblazer of the now rather ubiquitous photography collective model, the organisation today has something of a fight on its hands to convince the current generation of young photographers that it remains a relevant voice.

Open for Business is at The Science Museum until 2 November 2014.