Vulcan’s Forge photobook casts a new light on 1970s West Midlands industry

Based on a 1979 photography exhibition, Janine Wiedel’s book offers an eye-opening look back at the West Midlands industry in the late 1970s.

Bluecoat Press has announced the publication of Vulcan’s Forge, a groundbreaking documentation of West Midlands industry by renowned photographer Janine Wiedel. And it’s been a LONG time in the making.

Originally exhibited at The Photographers’ Gallery in 1979 to critical acclaim, Vulcan’s Forge is considered one of the most important photographic works of its generation. Now, the 250-page clothbound monograph, printed in duotone, honours the original exhibition while adding new insights from the past 45 years.

An internationally acclaimed documentary photographer, Jane Wiedel spent five years in the late 1970s embedded with industrial communities in the West Midlands. Her compelling images poetically capture the harsh realities faced by workers as their livelihoods and heritage were threatened.

Who is Janine?

Janine Wiedel is an internationally important documentary photographer whose work spans over five decades. Tutored by Ansel Adams, Nancy, and Beaumont Newhall, she photographed the Black Power movement in the late 1960s and the Berkeley People’s Park protest and riots of 1969. Arriving in England in 1970, she embarked on a continuous series of long-term projects, including five years documenting Irish travellers.

Later subjects included the Greenham Common Women’s Camp, the multicultural community squat in St Agnes Place, London, and the BAME and Rastafarian communities in Brixton. Her most recent work includes six months of photographing in the Calais ‘Jungle’ and Grande-Synthe refugee camp in Dunkirk.

In 1977, Janine Wiedel set out in her VW campervan to photograph industry in England’s West Midlands, once the heart of the Industrial Revolution. The region, home to thousands of businesses – from potteries and jewellers to coal mines, steel, and iron works – was in steep decline.

Underinvestment over many decades in both premises and machinery had created a depressing situation in which once-world-leading businesses were no longer competitive internationally and faced a grim future.

Divided into sections covering different industries, the book features extended captions and background information spotlighting the decline of the region’s manufacturing power after decades of underinvestment.

Why her work is important

In 2024, Janine’s photographs offer a stark yet poetic view into a rapidly disappearing world of industrial labour. Her images have a grittiness that captures the harsh working conditions, with workers surrounded by smoke, fire, and heavy machinery. Yet she also finds beauty and dignity in her subjects, celebrating their skill, camaraderie, and pride in their trades.

The black and white prints highlight the contrasts of light and shadow, grime and sweat etched onto the workers’ faces. Wiedel puts her viewers right on the factory floor amid the clanging, the heat, and the physical toll of these jobs. Her environmental portraits convey a strong sense of place and community.

In the decades since, Vulcan’s Forge has become a time capsule of the old West Midlands industries that had defined the region for centuries. Her work ensures these stories are not lost to history.

These images provide a powerful generational legacy, allowing the children and grandchildren of her subjects to better understand the arduous but honourable work their ancestors performed.

Most importantly, while her images depict grim realities, they avoid passing judgment and instead elevate the humanity of the workers through Janine’s empathetic lens. Her ability to gain such intimate access is a testament to the trust she built over many months of getting to know these tight-knit industrial communities.

With industries continuing to evolve as we embark on a global transition to sustainability, this documentation of 20th-century tradespeople takes on even more historical significance. This new book preserves a critical cultural record of a disappearing way of life and world of work that may never be seen again, ensuring these stories can continue to be told and appreciated by future generations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.