visual images designed to educate, communicate, and sell.


The History Of Industrial Photography


When writing a “History of…” about any topic it’s important to focus in on certain aspects of what made the greatest impact during a specific period of time. This could be a person, event or even an innovation of some sort. The history of industrial photography can arguably date back to the birth of photography and the amount of information from this period is endless.

I could discuss photos that captured the development of the transcontinental railroad or even dive into the industrial revolution but lets zoom in to what I believe to be most fascinating about the history of my career!

This angle takes a look at a time when labor was visible – as the activity of work but also, and more importantly, as a force. Whether it is a force to defend a nation during wartime or a force used to produce consumable goods, the collection of photographs at the Harvard Business School has successfully brought to our attention the impact that industrial photography made on our understanding of the relationship between the “Human and the machine”.

After all, industrial photography has become so significant for that exact reason. This field of photography takes us beyond what meets the ordinary eyes and it delivers us a final product that lasts practically forever.

I’ll explain the relationship between the industrial photography research carried out by the Harvard Business School and the works of Margaret Bourke White.

In the 1930’s, two Harvard colleagues Donald Davenport and Frank Ayres requested photographs for classroom instruction with the purpose to “reveal the courage, industry and intelligence required of the American working man”. All of these 2,100 photographs were used to help aspiring corporate managers gain insights into how industrial progress was made.

In between world wars, industrial photography had evolved into an art form that shined a light on America’s industrial might. The photography in the 1930’s depicted factory workers as a commodity rather than mere bodies part of a mundane production chain.

One of the main reasons that the Harvard Business School sought these photos were to help students solve problems by studying real-life business situations.

Professor Ayres was particularly interested in documentary records that illustrated action and labor-saving devices. For all their faithful rendering of detail, however, the publicity images donated by businesses depicted workers and machines within the conventions of a highly refined art form. From the simple expository illustrations of early industrial photography, the genre had evolved by the 1930s into a stylized medium of iconic imagery that celebrated America’s industrial might.

Margaret Bourke-White

The thoroughly cleaned nickel silver spoons or forks are placed in the plating tanks on racks that revolve.

industrial photography

Chrysler: Gears, 1929















As seen in the picture above (left), one of Bourke-White’s clients was the Otis Steel Company. She played at major role influencing the Cubist movement through her machine age photography and her work set a standard for the future of industrial photography. Both her people skills and her technique opened up opportunities one after the other and she romanticized the power of industry by “capturing beauty in a world not usually considered beautiful”.

The use of photography in education allows students to better understand the subjects in which they study. Industrial photography gave students at the Harvard Business School a better representation of what was really going on in the factories and Bourke-White is credited to have bridged the gap. The Otis Steel Company commissioned Margaret during a time when steel making was a defense industry. It was in the best interest for Otis to protect national security, making it difficult for Bourke-White to simply carry her camera in to do her job. Furthermore, in the eyes of the pubic, people wondered if a lady with a camera could withstand the hazard, heat and grimy conditions inside a steel mill.

When she got permission, the technical problems began. Black and white film in that era was sensitive to blue light, not the reds and oranges of hot steel—she could see the beauty, but the pictures were coming out all black. She solved this problem by bringing along a new style of magnesium flare (which produces white light) and having assistants hold them to light her scenes. Her abilities resulted in some of the best steel factory pictures of that era, and these earned her national attention

But Margaret was not the only photographer to reveal these times from a different perspective. Photographer Lewis Hine set out to “dispel the notion of the soulless corporation and at the same time encourage workers to view themselves as vital parts of a meaningful whole.”

A Finisher_Lewis Hine

A finisher – Lewis Hine 1933

The more you see of modern machines, the more
may you, too, respect the men who make and manipulate them. ~ Lewis Hine 1932

The Harvard Business School archive of industrial photographs taken during a time when economic climate was high between the two world wars is strikingly similar to my approach to create visual images to educate, communicate and sell.

How do you think industrial photography has changed over the years? Drop a line in the comments below and lets talk about it!