A couple weeks ago I wrote about the new book of photographs made by Ulrich Mack in the Ruhr region of the industrial landscape from the late 1950s. One of the industries occupying that land was steel smelting plants and a recent book discovery called Born of Fire: Steel offers an inside tour to some of those same plants that Mack photographed from the exterior. These two books sitting side by side offer very different approaches and tenor to the industry of the region.
Born of Fire: Steel could be just another 1950s era book championing an industry through mediocre photography and an overinflated sense of the public interest in such subjects, except the photography is actually the strong point. Yes there is the ubiquitous sentimentality and romanticism of the workers. All seem to be approaching a day in the smelting plant as an adventure instead of the grueling, sweat box that it probably was, and whatever exhaustion may have been present in such factories has been replaced by faces full of fascination or steady concentration.
The photos were made by C. A. Stachelscheid and the book was designed by Dr Wolf Strache. He opens his essay with a picture of a "Modern industrial man" in profile presumably stoking a furnace. Lit by an amber light offset by the bluish hues of the background he is a portrait of knowledge and professionalism - a perfect companion to the machines and infrastructure of the plant. Stachelscheid adds captions which appear in-between groupings of photographs and their content reads with the same fervor as a propaganda booklet.
"Even the most advanced technology cannot do without him. He is one of many; his name not recorded. But the camera reveals his qualities, his bearing, his being. Here is strength; but it is not to be wasted. Here is courage; but governed by caution. Here is also, plainly apparent, a sense of responsibility for complicated and costly processes."
Stachelscheid works all steps of the steel-making process from mining to the final products with a strong concentration on smelting steps which offers some of the more visually dynamic photos. Sparks flying and yellow streams of molten steel flowing from blast furnaces into ingot molds are favorite moments of photographers but
Stachelscheid's photos also reveal a concern for making complete photographs. This mediation is addressed in the captions as well; "Has the photographer assembled an effective composition just for the sake of the shot? A natural suspicion, but an unjustified one. This is how bent sheets are nested for better transportation."
The printing of Born of Fire is the third character of the book beyond the photographs and captions. The four-color offset renders colors in aged and unrealistic hues which enter in an element of fantasy to the "reality" of the work floor. Looking at times like hand-tinted photos, they are impressionistic and idealized. The close-up still-lifes overemphasize the clash of color and a few seem to follow in the steps of Keld-Helmer Petersen. One downright surreal image of a man measuring the precision form of a steel tube has the man's head, shoulders and arms seemingly trapped inside the ring of steel offset by a disturbing paint can of red gore entering into the right of the frame - quite a photographic magic act.
Some of the pairings of photos across page spreads is the other element that lifts Born of Fire above the expected. Certainly not all, but several are amazing compliments which reveal fine instincts on the part of the publisher Strache in understanding the difference between a book and individual photos.
Is Born of Fire: Steel a great book? Not by a long shot but it surely has its moments of surprise that extend beyond the quirks of printing and spectacular subject. I was certainly pleasantly surprised enough to pick it up several times so for 10-15 dollars you might take a chance. Published in 1956 by Verlag DBS Dr. Wolf Strache, Stuttgart.