Exhibition Review: ‘Grafters’

The development of photography followed hard on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, but depicting workers and industry was not a simple matter. These and related issues are pursued in an exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester which runs until August.

Some of the earliest photos of working people were taken in studios so they could be collected by the comfortably off, but the subjects in these probably did not see the developed portraits. Other workers encountered cameras at the hands of the police who, from 1865, took photos of convicts with their crimes listed (frequently larceny and sleeping rough).

From the 1870s onwards, workers were often included in photos of factories, in order to emphasise the size of the machines they were working on. Photos of groups of workers, which had originated in group photos of soldiers, became common from the 1880s, and were especially popular in the First World War, to show the women workers who had taken over while the men were off fighting. As cameras became cheaper, workers were able to document their own lives and surroundings. In the ‘Soviet Union’, photos were intended to make workers look heroic, and something along similar lines happened in the West during the Second World War.

There are many excellent photos here, over a range of dates, for instance of pit brow lasses in Wigan from 1865, of the massive labour involved in constructing the Manchester Ship Canal, and of a depressing smoke-enveloped Bradford from the 1940s. The last Lancashire miners are depicted in 1989, as is the last shift at a deep mine, from Kellingley in Yorkshire in 2015. There is even one of a football match between the police and official miners’ pickets, from 1985 in Derby. Many of the recent photos were taken by the exhibition’s curator, Ian Beesley.

It’s a stimulating display, showing how even something as apparently unproblematic as photographing members of the working class reveals underlying issues and power relationships.

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