I posted a few photos a while back of Rotherham, a South Yorkshire steel town and neighbour to its more celebrated neighbour Sheffield. Britain once had many steel towns but there are relatively few now. The steel industry in Britain was once enormous and employed hundreds of thousands of people, and the economies of many towns were dominated by their steelworks. Sheffield and Rotherham had numerous works, and a number still exist.
This is the same the world over, and especially so in the enormous American steel industry. Pittsburgh, maybe the most noted steel town, once had over a dozen iron and steel works and is still known as the steel city, although none now exist within the city limits. I discovered this photo by Jack Delano a few years ago, and thought it worth another look.
My last visit to Rotherham was unproductive and I didn’t have the time to explore the area, but I was determined to take a photograph that captured the steelworks in the urban landscape. The idea for the composition of the photograph came from one I found on Getty Images, when I was researching possible locations for photographing the steelworks. It’s not the easiest of places to photograph, being mainly a collection of huge steel sheds and chimneys so I looked at what other photographers had done. When I found this, I knew instantly that this was the scene I wanted to capture, although pinpointing the exact location took a long time as I’m not from the area and had to make extensive use of Google Earth and Google Streetview. Having been an admirer of Delano’s photograph for some time (I wrote about it here a few years ago), I could instantly see the parallels. So mine is a contemporary British interpretation of it – the semi-detached houses, the cars for driving to work rather than walking, and the smoke-free works at the bottom of the valley. The telephone wires are still there though, but going in a different direction.
Scenes like this are a thing of the past though, and in many respects that’s a good thing. The pollution from a steel mill is considerable (although steel mills with electric arc furnaces are much less polluting than blast furnace equipped plants) and with the closure of heavy industry, many of these one horse towns have had to diversify their economies. The down side has been the loss of decent jobs, often for unskilled / semi-skilled work. Equivalent jobs in their replacements – mainly retail, warehouse and distribution – is not likely to be as well paid. Better paid technical and professional workers move away or aren’t attracted to the area and there are fewer apprenticeships for bright young school leavers to go into. Yes I know this is all a gross over-simplification as there are far more moving parts to it than that, but you only have to look at the socio-economic problems in the rust belt states of America to see the consequences.