Rural Industrial

I've always been fascinated with manufacturing, with the process of creating something, of assembling an object from component pieces using techniques and methods honed and refined over time.  Big manufacturing plants intrigue me.  But recently I've come across small operations, away from the big cities, situated in rural towns.  They are remarkable, specialized businesses, utilizing rigorous and standardized - often proprietary - processes.  And in them I've found the beginnings of a new photography project.  I'm calling it Rural Industrial.

It's different from the landscapes, travel and urban scenes I've photographed to date. These are working facilities, full of equipment, often dark, where a shot is neither obvious nor easy to get.  And before I can even take out a camera there's the challenge of talking to the owner, explaining what I want to do and why, and getting permission to enter their premises and take photographs.  The explanation can take some time; they don't see what I see - that the shop floor, the machinery, the works in process, are beautiful.  And sometimes that particular time isn't convenient for them to talk to me but if it's suggested I come back and try another day of course I do.  Approaching busy owners is definitely not comfortable but it's the only way to get the images I want.

In the last few months I've photographed four rural industrial operations:  a farm services facility, a foundry, a machine shop specializing in parts for local oil rigs, and a heavy machinery repair shop.  Each is different.  Each requires a dedicated owner or owners and skilled staff.  Sometimes it's a single owner, sometimes a family group, and sometimes it's a second or third generation business.


Fertilizer storage and mixing silos, built in the mid-60's.  The family-run farm services business has replaced the silos with modern versions and these are now scheduled to be taken down.  With the late sun bathing them in colour and then a full moon rising in the background I find them a striking addition to the landscape and will miss them when they're gone.


A local foundry quickly became a favourite place.  It's a thriving business where industrial products such as tree grates, manhole covers, and specialized parts are cast, and larger commissioned artworks created.  The process is rigorous, time-consuming, and physical.  Making the moulds, firing the furnace, preparing the molten metal, filling the moulds - all part of the process.  


This shot was taken at the back of the foundry using only the natural light that came in through the frosted window.  The boxes stacked in the corner, and the one on the floor are casings for moulds.  The round object in the foreground is a furnace where metals are heated at intense temperatures and transformed into molten liquid.


Poured castings in the cooling process, weighted down to keep them stable.

Assorted weights, seen in the background of the previous images.


Scrap metal to be melted down, with pokers lined up against the wall in the foreground.


This part of western Ontario was where the oil industry began in Canada, and while it's no longer the "oil capital of Canada" oil is still in production here.  It's done on a different scale, using different methods than the large scale operations, and it relies on the proprietor of a local machine shop to produce and repair the specialized parts needed to keep the wells running.  


Belt-driven machinery, once powered by gas, is still operational after almost a century of use.  


Brass tubing to be turned into parts for the oil wells.


There is equipment everywhere, and it's all in use.  Not obsolete, not replaced with something new and modern.


There's more I want to photograph here.  And I want to capture the history of this business that was started by a father and son in 1914.  There's much to tell.

The last place is a heavy machinery repair shop.  Trucks, large farm machinery, and lots of parts, both inside and outside the shop.


Two of the places I don't think I'll be returning to.  The other two I definitely will as there's lots more to capture.  I've found all these businesses exciting to visit and a privilege to photograph.  I'm grateful I've had the chance to learn a bit about what goes on in our rural industrial world.  And, as is often the case, one thing leads to another.  I've now heard about a local blacksmith and a lumber mill that runs its equipment on steam.  I'm thinking both would be worth a visit.

The Light is Everything

I've been photographing for a few years now, and I like to think my images have improved. But it wasn't until I started focusing more on the quality of the light that I could see a real difference.  Prior to that I'd tend to go out with my camera during the middle of the day, the mornings and evenings usually taken up with other things.  And the images reflected that.  Many were not interesting.  The light often harsh, hot, or simply not there.  It became clear:  The Light is Everything.

Photography is important to me, a creative outlet that's quickly becoming a passion.  And if I wanted to get better I'd have to pay more attention to the light.  So I made the commitment but it wasn't easy.  Light is something special - I think of it as a gift - and it's not always there.  Weather patterns shift, clouds come in where none were expected, it rains or is overcast for what seems like weeks, and this winter has been one of the greyest I can remember.  The lake didn't freeze, there was little snow, blue sky was a distant memory, and the wonderful soft winter palette of pinks and blues was mostly absent.  And when it does make an appearance it doesn't stay for long.  It's elusive and challenging.  But when you are there at the right time, and you're able to get the shot you've visualized, it is exciting.

A winter shot of a few bleak trees at the edge of Lake Huron.  Nothing much to look at most of the time, but when the light hit them late one afternoon they put on a show.

A group of farm buildings in Lambton Shores.  Again, not much to look at in the harsh light of day, but late in the afternoon they seem to sparkle.  And those old silos right beside that brand new wind turbine tell a story.

Good light often partners with bad weather.  Just before or after a storm front passes through the sky can be striking, with good contrast, dark clouds, and slivers of light.  It's a good time to be out photographing.  But, as always, those peak moments are fleeting.

Last November I hoped to get some pictures of the Supermoon.  The sky was clear that night and it looked promising.  Along with a photographer friend we set up in a field at a spot where, using the Ephemeris app, we'd calculated the moon to rise just to the left of the large silo.

But our calculations were off by a touch, and that beautiful moon rose just a bit further to the right and not over the silo and farm buildings.  An error of a few degrees makes a big difference.  Some scrambling and fast running to get the best shot possible under the circumstances.  I did get the Supermoon, just not where I expected it.

The next morning in Grand Bend.  That amazing moon setting exactly where Ephemeris said it would.  And that light on the lighthouse is from the rising sun.  Light is the magic sauce that makes the difference.


A shot of the Assiniboine in the Sarnia Harbour, taken just as the sun broke through on a cloudy day.  The light hit the ship and the colours popped.

Two similar images taken on the same day, 16 minutes apart.  The sun broke through the clouds and lit up the buildings, creating a completely different look and mood.

A picture of Sarnia's Chemical Valley, taken at dusk.  Dark, moody, and mysterious.

An oil tanker, the Algoma HANSA, in dock on the St. Clair River.  The sun caught the side of the ship just before sunset.  I think of these scenes as beautiful industrial landscapes.

Another industrial landscape, this one taken in Hamilton at the end of February when the harbour still had a thin coating of ice on it.  Large storage containers, tugboats, and reflections in the water.  Industrial for sure, perhaps not appealing to everyone, but for me it definitely works.

I'll close this post with a Tundra Swan coming in for a landing.  Taken late in the afternoon it wasn't quite "last light" but the blue sky rendered the water a colour that contrasted nicely with the bright white of the swan's feathers, and the shadows provided detail.

It is harder to get out when the light is right.  And that light is changing all the time.  It's also brief, the time of day when the light is at its best is incredibly short.  But good light makes for better images and that's what I'm after.  So I'll continue to be out there, chasing the light and seeing what I can do with it.  The light is everything.