“People who want to understand democracy should spend less time in the library with Aristotle and more time on the buses and in the subway.”
– Simeon Strunsky
Industry can be brutal and unforgiving, efficient and precise. At its best, it can produce economical products for an increasing portion of the population, raising living standards. At its worst – like the recent revelations at Volkswagen – it can be fraudulent. At the same time, its factories and workshops that create and maintain often have a geometry and esthetic beauty that celebrate technical advancement, engineering, and the wheel of progress.
One photographer of the early 20th century who documented industry was Charles Sheeler, born in Philadelphia in 1883. Educated in industrial drawing and the applied arts at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia, in 1927-28 he spent six weeks photographing the Ford Motor Company’s automobile plant in River Rouge, Michigan, as part of the promotional campaign for the release of the Model A. His 32 images show Ford’s gleaming, massive machinery, and Sheeler focused more on these forms than the human employees. The photographs not only celebrate America’s power and productivity, but they also, perhaps unintentionally, foreshadow an even more automated age where machines work autonomously.
The accompanying photographs portray – in similar fashion – the depot and maintenance workshop of Brussels STIB, the public transportation authority for the city. Brussels’ public transport system began in earnest with the first horse-drawn trams in 1869, and the first electric tram arrived in 1894. Now, Brussels has one of the ten largest tram systems in the world, with 19 routes, 140 kilometers of track and over 120 million passengers a year. Rails crisscross its floor like sprinting lanes, brake rotors stack the shelves, and metal scrap awaits the afterlife, all to support a service that celebrates equal opportunity mobility, strengthening interaction and a sense of community across its population.
As the Brussels commuter knows:
“A MOBIB will get you on the tram, but a garlicky moules frites will get you a seat.”
– Aaron C. Greenman
Aaron C. Greenman has been a photographer for over 25 years and has lived and worked on four continents. He has previously been profiled on The Leica Camera Blog for his work in Asia, India, Africa, Israel, Turkey, Russia, and Eastern and Western Europe. More of his portfolio images can be viewed on his website, and he has several books available for the iPad (here, here and here).