Photographic employment in the 1970s – industrial territory

Sometime between the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and the three day week in 1974 – a consequence of the oil crisis following the war – I entered the industrial sector of photography working for the Building Research Establishment. It was part of the Department of the Environment and based at a sprawling site in the grounds of a one-time Victorian mansion with dozens of different departments housed in an odd mix of temporary buildings and high tech labs. Here hundreds of people (from stereotypically dull bureaucrats to truly eccentric types) worked on all aspects of research into building –  from brick packaging to acoustics; from construction in earthquake zones to how buildings collapse; and from studying wind on high-rise buildings to the immersion of concrete in sea-water, and more – a memorable plumbing test rig emulated multiple toilet use in office blocks or flats and comprised a wall of several rows of working (though not used!) toilets in four or five tiers that were individually, or collectively, flushable by remote control.

I’d hoped to do some work in the film department but there were inequalities here too (see previous post) and I only got my hands on a film camera once – more on this below. The majority of my time was spent in the darkroom (torture during the legendary heatwave of 1976) printing work I’d photographed or more often developing and printing other people’s negatives for journals, magazines or just for archiving case studies. Chemical mixing was another regular task and copying photographs, slides, charts, diagrams etc. The department was a little ‘overstaffed’ but I hope it’s safe to say after so may years that we didn’t let the facilities lie idle but put them to good use for honing our our own skills – for example, refining lighting techniques in portraiture, creating personal projects such as calendars (a post on seriously offline publishing to follow), and, more altruistically, reproducing photographs of South American Disappeared People ‘Desaparecidos‘ for distribution by a human rights charity.

Probably permissible now to also recount some oddities of the establishment such as the curious appointment of an ‘experienced’ colour printer who turned out to be colour blind, and the affable ex-RAF departmental head, who wore a blazer and a moustache, but rather than driving what would have been the ideal complement to this image, eg a nifty British sports car, he cherished instead a two-stroke East German Wartburg. Then there was the idiosyncratic, nearing-retirement reprographics man who was an enthusiastic bread and wine maker and grew tomatoes and fermented stuff in his domain at the end of our office. Other forms of brewing, and allegedly distilling, took place in the Materials’ (chemistry) lab just prior to Christmas to provide some unusual and toxic punch for their fabled parties.

Back to the work! Despite the predominant darkroom duties, I did get the chance to take photographs too. After the initiation of photographing concrete beams under stress with an antique wood and brass view camera (along with many samples of weathered roofing felt, building materials immersed in various liquids, models of testing rigs (see montage above), wind tunnel experiments and the development of the weird anechoic and contrasting reverberation chambers).

Anechoic sound testing chamber – in a state of collapse.

I was later allowed out on location with a more up to date 5″ X 4″ Sinar view camera. But it was still a huge and cumbersome piece of equipment, especially when carrying it and the small tree-sized tripod along the muddy estuary banks to photograph the construction of the new Thames Flood Barrier in 1975. The engineers watched in sneering amusement (with no offer of assistance – you can see them in the photo above) as one of my Civil Service issue industrial wellies got sucked off in the mud while I valiantly tried to prevent the whole camera kit from sliding into a puddle.

A sublime contrast was helping on a shoot of some pioneering restoration work in Westminster Abbey (no photos unfortunately).  The same large format camera was used but the scale of the space required setting up dozens of large flash-bulbs attached to cables for each shot; I’d thought they were redundant even then but electronic flash was just not powerful enough. It took hours for my colleague to achieve a few shots and required a lot of skill and mathematics to assess exposures.

A more prosaic trip to the London area, with a more manageable 35mm camera, was made to photograph holes in the roofs of a number of houses near Heathrow airport where a combination of weather conditions would lead to the roof tiles  being sucked off (see photo) as planes passed low over the houses. Some of the residents were somewhat peeved when it happened more than once. See montage above.

Another notable assignment was assisting with photographing the controlled exploding of the scale model of a tower block (see photo – though not of the explosion unfortunately!) in one of the BRE site buildings. This experiment was instigated as a result of the partial collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in Newham, London in 1968 in which four people were killed and 17 injured. BRE researched and reported on the incident and this model was part of the process to assess how construction methods could be improved to avoid further disasters. See montage above.

The most dramatic event I experienced at BRE took place in one of the astoundingly large airship hangars at Cardington in Bedforshire. It required all the staff of our photographic and film department (there were more than you could believe) plus our counterparts from the related Fire and Timber research stations to film the destruction by fire of full scale recreation of a section of a new hospital building. The experiment, from distant memories, was to test the materials used in this building to assess how long they stayed fire retardant before igniting (there was an insurance issue I think).  The only way to find the answers in this specific set of circumstances was to set fire to a replica and record it; an opportunity eagerly awaited by the Fire research team who were all rumoured to be pyromaniacs – with a license to burn!

Everyone had to undergo medical tests before taking part to check our suitability for wearing breathing apparatus, we were also clad in insulated and fireproofed overalls. Testing for vertigo may have been advisable too as some crew were going to film from the catwalks that ran across the top of the interior space. I wasn’t based there but did go up for the staggering experience of seeing the floor through the open mesh walkways 163 feet (50 metres) below.

Positioned to film the fire as it progressed through the re-created rest area of the hospital, I recorded, through the window of a fireproof door, the rapid ignition and frighteningly fast destruction of furnishings and flooring in the space. That’s all I can remember of this episode (my only alliance with a film camera in this job, a 16mm Arriflex I believe) as I had to abandon my post because of the heat, and, despite the breathing apparatus many of us felt very odd for several days afterwards. An exciting but alarming experience and one good deterrent (as if any were needed) for buying polystyrene furniture.

After three years here and another in West Wales I went to Bristol and worked in commercial photography.

View from catwalk inside one the airship hangars at Cardington, Bedfordshire, where the fire test described above was carried out.

Photo John Webb.