Industrial photos: ‘a visually pornographic record of waste’ 

By Karen Herland

Rosemary Donegan addressed the beauty and contradictions inherent in Canada’s century and a half of industrial photography as part of this year’s successful Speaking of Photography lecture series.

Donegan, who is from the Ontario College of Art and Design, has been exploring photographs of labour and industry. She explained the social and cultural significance of images that capture “machinery, class, unions and also immigration, race, gender and community,” sometimes in surprising ways — for instance, the practice of dressing in your best clothes to go out on the picket line early in the 20th century.

Donegan explained to the audience that packed the York Amphitheatre that in the mid-1800s, studio photographers developed a “vernacular tradition” of photographs. These shots had the trappings of images of that era: ferns, valances and wicker chairs.

This image of Japanese miners taken by the Hayashi Studio photographers of Cumberland, B.C. contrasts their rough clothing with their ‘literate’ glasses and hands protected by gloves. Magnifying glass

This image of Japanese miners taken by the Hayashi Studio photographers of Cumberland, B.C. contrasts their rough clothing with their ‘literate’ glasses and hands protected by gloves.

However, in industrial towns, these props surrounded labourers, like the miners in the Hayashi Studio’s photograph (at right) or their families. Among these images are shots of labourers posing under a banner inviting “Workers of the World Unite” or children orphaned by industrial accidents. Studio photographers were often hired by local industry to document their activities, constructions or the efficiency of their production lines.

A particularly emotional example of this concerned the construction of the Quebec Bridge. The structure was designed as the largest cantilever bridge of its time, connecting Quebec City to Lévis. Poor planning led to its collapse while still under construction in 1907. Seventy-five construction workers, including 33 Kahnawake Mohawks, were killed in that accident.

Nine years later, construction continued with an improved design. Eugene Michael Finn documented the structure’s progress at 20-minute intervals from 5 a.m. on Sept. 11, 1916. His photos abruptly stop mid-morning, after a hoist malfunctioned and sent the central span of the bridge crashing down, killing several more workers.

In addition to Finn’s notoriety for the shots he didn’t take, his work is interesting because his images depict the lines, forms and architecture of the bridge. Workers in the images appear as accessories to illustrate the scale of the girders, rivets and railings.

This move towards form heralded what Donegan referred to as Modernism in industrial photography. The focus shifts from workers in action to more abstract and passive images of the verticals, horizontals and planes of machinery.
Light and shadow are also key to these images — notably, in a series of photographs of labourers taken by Yousef Karsh in the 1950s, on commission for Ford and Atlas Steel.

Donegan ended with a critique of the currently celebrated work of Edward Burtynsky, His elaborate photo shoots depict landscapes affected by resource extraction (his Breaking Ground series or the Three Gorges Dam project in China) or landscapes created by consumer waste (phone dials in China, tires in California). His work was featured in the Globe and Mail, Jan. 26.

“The full-frame patterns are a visually pornographic record of waste and refuse,” said Donegan, wondering aloud why Burtynsky has only recently acknowledged any sort of cultural critique in his work after denying it for years.

Donegan argued that the subject matter associated with labour, industrial activity and its effect on the planet demand a kind of integrity or responsibility on the part of those who document it.

Speaking of Photography continues with Geoffrey Batchen on Feb. 28. Martha Langford, of the Art History department, credits a handful of dedicated doctoral students for the success of the series, and looks forward to next year’s series, which is already in the works. For more information on this and upcoming lectures, go to


Concordia University