Mechanisation and Maintenance

29 November 2018 | First Thoughts on Photography Factories, Automation and Sensitivity

Yesterday I visited the Harman Technology Ltd. factory in Mobberley, south of Manchester, where Ilford films and photographic papers are still produced. This site was originally the Rajar factory (est. 1903) and bought by Ilford Limited in 1928-9. By the 1930s, Ilford had turned Mobberley into its specialist site for paper coating, and in 1983 Ilford Limited (then owned by the Swiss firm Ciba AG) moved all production to Mobberley. I was taken on a tour of the present factory, which was fascinating. The machines are very different from those used in the early period, and the present buildings date mostly from the 1980s — but the experience has helped me to reflect on aspects of early mechanisation and automation...

Mechanisation began at Ilford Limited in the late 1880s. The early coating and drying machines worked a little like an assembly-line conveyor, moving the product through a series of processes, yet their movement was determined by the need to heat, cool, or dry the materials. Among the first tasks that Alfred Harman mechanised was the fine and fast rotary actions of brushing and polishing the glass plates. Factory workers fed the glass plates into the machine and removed them at the other end, placing them on racks to dry. The task of coating the plates with emulsion was also subsequently delegated to machines which then passed them on a conveyor belt through a chilling tunnel to set the emulsion.

Such machines were initially hand-cranked, and when steam and then electric motors were introduced, speeds were still programmed by the workers according to the thickness of the emulsion required. The plates were still fed into the machines and collected at the other end, work carried out in the dark. Using this system “a skilled team” could coat 1000 plates an hour in the 1890s but by the 1930s, they could do 3,600 an hour (Hercock and Jones 131). It’s clear that even in this early period the “team” was small: photographs from the 1930s show two people, a young man and woman at the feeding end of the machine, and the same young woman at the racking end, where the plates were removed for drying. These photographs were posed, since the work would have been done in darkness, and it is likely that there was just one person at each end. Today, the coating machines for paper and film are operated by computers, watched over by one person in a control room using infra-red cameras, and by a group of people who analyse samples and scans from the machine to identify and anticipate any flaws in the paper or emulsion.

The increase in output, from 1000 to 3,600 was due in large part, not to new machines or rationalisation, but to the acquired tacit knowledge and maintenance skills of the humans working with the machines. David Edgerton has argued for accounts of technology to be sensitive to use, maintenance and repair, not just to innovation. Against the conventional notions of the economics of scale and of technological progress, he says that increases in production and efficiency happen as people become confident in their understanding of their machine, quick in their ability to anticipate or diagnose problems as they arise, and able to maintain the machines. Edgerton writes that “the maintenance schemes, programmes and costs are not programmable in advance”, instead people learn informally by doing and by coping (Edgerton 90). The neglect of maintenance and repair in accounts of technology often prevents recognition of this living alongside, tuning and responding to machines.

Photographic manufacture is heavily shaped by the extreme sensitivity of the product. Not only is it sensitive to light, but also to temperature, to humidity, air velocity, dust, contaminants in the air and in liquid or on skin, the metals in the machines. The sensitivity of emulsion to contamination meant that copper and iron could not be used in the machinery, so that Ilford’s earliest hydraulic shredder for emulsion was actually made from solid silver (Hercock and Jones 131). The sensitivity to heat meant great care had to be taken when the plates were removed from the conveyor belt for drying, because warm fingertips could melt the emulsion (Hercock and Jones 132). This suggests not that the delicacy and dexterity of hands suited humans to this work, but rather that people had to develop a certain dexterity as a result of their own contaminative potential.

Each machine and each worker is also situated in an environment designed to be hospitable to the sensitive emulsion. From very early on, Ilford worked on controlled air systems to dry plates and prevent contamination. Their cooling tank and filtration system recirculated, dehumidified and cleaned the air from the drying rooms, while the walls were washed down with glycerine solution (Hercock and Jones 135, 140). The company even introduced cotton fabric filters coated in silver nitrate solution to enable them to remove sulphurous gases from the air (see my blog post on fogging). The temperature and humidity of the atmosphere was controlled as far as possible to limit curling of baryta (fibre-based paper coated with barium sulphate), and sheet film required a humid atmosphere to allow it to be separated from the glass plate base on which it had been coated (Hercock and Jones 136).

One way of thinking about this is that photographic emulsions are like living creatures replete with their own habits and peculiarities, dependent on a very particular ecosystem, reactive and temperamental. Their proclivities determine particular kind of human and machine interactions in which various tendencies of machines and humans must be suppressed or developed in new directions. The temperamental chemical emulsions, the skilled and habituated human body, the highly specific and purpose-built machinic environment (including air conditioning), all co-produce one another. Maintenance and repair can be understood here not just in terms of the human actions on the machine but of a caring or attuned relationship between all three participants. Automation is something more than machines replacing people, and might be better understood in terms of such responsive and elaborate collaborations.


Edgerton, David, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, London: Profile Books 2006.

Hercock, Robert J. and Jones, George A., Silver by the Ton: The History of Ilford Limited, 1879-1979, Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

Fiends and Lovers

19 November 2018 | Lucia Moholy, Pelican Specials and Amateur Photographers

Over the last two weeks I have taken a break from my AHRC funded research on Ilford Limited to speak at two conferences: first, Sites of Interchange: Modernism, Politics and Culture in Britain and Germany , 1919-1951, at the Courtauld Institute in London; and then Photography Off the Scale at FAMU in Prague. In this blog post I will discuss ideas from the first conference, and how they might bear on my Ilford work.

The opening paper of the conference was by Leah Hsiao (University of York) and called “Dislocation of Amateurism: Moholy-Nagy in Britain 1935-7”. László Moholy-Nagy was by this time separated from his first wife, Lucia Moholy, whose 1939 book, A Hundred Years of Photography, I discussed in my own paper. I argued that this text was a key means by which a British readership were introduced to the perspectives on photography that were in circulation in the late 1920s and early 1930s among central European modernists. Here, I also want to link Moholy’s book to the concept of the amateur as discussed by Hsiao.

The Pelican Specials series, in which Moholy’s book appeared, was launched by Penguin books in 1938 to bring topical issues and quality writing to a wide reading public in the form of affordable sixpence paperbacks. This public was potentially receptive to ideas relating to new technology and democratization, even if they came via the European avant-garde. The Specials were intended to be educational and culturally improving, with a strong empirical and internationalist emphasis. They were linked to “an optimistic reformist social agenda” and the promotion of certain “democratic, rational and moral principles” (Rylance 56, Joicey 35, 37). Moholy’s book is in keeping with this orientation, emphasising technical and social phenomena, avoiding universalising or metaphysical statements, and addressing a wide range of photographic practices (not just art practices).

Moholy also explicitly discusses amateurism. She begins one chapter by arguing that the distinction between professional and amateur is not a distinction that relates to “the value of work done” (Moholy 168). She says many serious photographers are amateurs “in the old sense of the word”. The root of the “amateur” in the Latin amare — love — suggests a commitment to the medium. The “old sense of the word” leans towards this notion of love, rather than the notion of hobbyists with poor grasp of their equipment or of technique. Moholy’s readership would no doubt have included many amateurs (photography lovers).

As Hsiao pointed out in her paper, amateurism in England was originally associated with the authority of an aristocratic class that did not have to work. Internationally, and especially in photography, amateurs were not so well regarded: in the United States, amateur photographers were described as “Kodak fiends”, understood as faddists and often as public pests (Mensel); in photography, amateurism was identified with women in the shape of the “Kodak Girl” (Armstrong 103, f.4).

Avant-garde photographers were just as likely to be aligned with the amateur as the professional. Moholy herself, though technically trained, struggled to earn a living as a photographer (though as someone else at the conference pointed out, this was one of the few professions open to immigrants in 1930s Britain). Armstrong writes of the connections between amateurism and art photography in the work of late-nineteenth century women photographers, but Hsiao brought this directly into Moholy’s milieu by discussing the importance of the concept for Moholy-Nagy.

Given the popularity of the Specials (Moholy’s book sold approximately 40,000 copies), it is likely that there was significant overlap between the readership of A Hundred Years of Photography and that of the Ilford Manual of Photography, and that many of her readers would see themselves as keen amateur photographers. Perhaps my next task is to link my two projects and compare Moholy’s A Hundred Years of Photography to the Ilford photography manuals, in its account of photography history but also in the way it speaks to the amateur.


Armstrong Carol, “From Clementina to Käsebier: The Photographic Attainment of the ‘Lady Amateur’”, October 91 (2000), 101–39.

Joicey, Nicholas, “A Paperback Guide to Progress: Penguin Books 1935–c.1951”, Twentieth Century British History 4:1 (1993), 25-56.

Mensel, Robert E. “ ‘Kodakers Lying in Wait’: Amateur Photography and the Right of Privacy in New York, 1885 -1915”, American Quarterly, 43:1 (1991), 24-45.

Moholy, Lucia, A Hundred Years of Photography, Penguin Books Ltd., 1939.

Rylance, Rick, “Reading with a Mission: The Public Sphere of Penguin Books”, Critical Quarterly 47:4 (2005): 49-66.

Aesthetics, Industry and Innovation in Twentieth Century Photography: The Ilford Archive

14 August 2018 | New AHRC funded research project starting September 2018

I have just received the exciting news that I have been made an AHRC Leadership Fellow. This will fund a research project on the work of the Ilford Limited photographic company and aspects of photographic culture during WWI and in the interwar period in Britain. It will also enable me to develop my research leadership skills and capacity, by providing masterclasses and workshops for colleagues and postgraduate students in my field, as well as funding an international conference in photography and film studies in 2019.

I am really looking forward to the first part, in which I will work in the Ilford archive, and the second part, where I disseminate the results of my research, collaborate with other institutions and with my wonderful colleague Dr. Junko Theresa Mikuriya, in planning and designing the conference. The AHRC money pays for Theresa's time to organise the conference, as well as for technicians and administrators to run and document it. The conference will try to engage not just with academics, but also with photographic practitioners, archivists and industry participants.

Overall the intention is not only to produce a new body of knowledge about Ilford and this specific historical period, but to develop new methods and theoretical perspectives and to create dialogue, particularly around the relationship between the material-industrial infrastructure of photography and film manufacture, and the intangible and aesthetic aspects of photography and film.

My research explores new aesthetic and technical practices developed in the period between the two world wars, and the impact on the visual, sensual 'economy' of the period. It situates Ilford's work with photographic chemistry in relation to other developments in the period relating to colour photography and photosensitivity, and in relation to changes in photographic practice and style. It looks at how technical and aesthetic developments were designed to address specific problems or needs arising from war and from economic changes.

As part of my literature review, I will be looking at existing studies of photographic companies such as Kodak, Corbis and Polaroid. I also plan to draw on work on the history of the senses. In particular, I am hoping to contribute to new and developing approaches in photography history and photography theory that move away from older analyses of a break between analogue and digital image to a more nuanced understanding of the material, industrial and technological basis of twentieth-century photographic practices. I am hoping to be able to make specific connections between corporate, everyday and avant-garde aesthetic and technical experimentation in photography, and to develop an understanding of how aesthetic and technical expertise embodied by human participants is transferred into technical apparatuses, and re-emerges as human-technical practices.

So this is part of a larger interest in how technical images impact on everyday sensory experience, and in the long technical development of photography. I'd like to be able to account for photography as a technology, without losing sight of questions of aesthetics and interpretation, which tend to be sidelined in historical and social-science accounts of technical change.

The project begins on 1st September 2018 and runs through to Autumn / Winter 2019. I will be providing regular updates on this blog and via the project Twitter and Instagram accounts. If you are interested in following the project, participating in the conference in 2019, or engaging in discussion over issues raised by this research, you can contact me via my university email account or via the social media accounts — details of which will be posted soon!