The aestheticization of cooling towers in photography

Eric de Maré brings forth something profound in these deep charcoal tones: a representation of two epistemes, two systems of thought. The colossal towers of Ferrybridge B appear at once quite primitive, as though shaped from clay, and aggressively, fervently, modern. Nestled in their shadow, the little church persists as a place of worship, a sanctuary from the uncertainties of modern life. But its symbolic stature is radically diminished. Only in a godless world could it be dwarfed by a pair of monoliths whose shape and scale, though manifestly utilitarian, is also bound up with discourses of boundless progress and the exploitation of universal forces.

Cooling towers proliferated in Britain during the 1950s, but are dwindling fast. Largely overlooked by architectural historians, and deemed — at least for now — by heritage bodies as too abundant to save, around a third have already disappeared — many in the last several years. This is a shame because, as Otto Saumuarez Smith lays out in this thoughtful eulogy to Ironbridge B (perhaps the finest and most theatrical sequence to have been dynamited so far), cooling towers embody a unique and revolutionary design.

‘Whether or not you see an abstractly humanoid presence in cooling towers…there is something elementally graceful about the way that they make heavy concrete visually light through a tender hyperboloid curve.’

And yet few will register, let alone regret, their demise. Most of us are not routinely exposed to the unlovely edgelands of infrastructure where cooling towers stand. It usually takes a trip up the motorway, or along the East Coast Main Line (where at one point each member of the Aire Valley trio of Ferrybridge, Eggborough and Drax is visible) to bring them to consciousness. The other main way is through photography.

Some photographers have found years of inspiration in cooling towers. Reginald Van de Velde’s Landscapes Within takes the viewer inside the cavernous condensation-streaked drums, highlighting, for all the outward uniformity, their surprising internal variation. And the abstract monochrome studies of Michael Kenna help us become aware of the towers’ sculptural strangeness, to see them anew.

Michael Kenna, ‘Ratcliffe Power Station, Study 26, Nottinghamshire, England’, 1986. His long exposures make the towers look semi-cosmic, somehow in touch with the universe.

Others have found in cooling towers a powerful symbol for addressing socio-political themes. One of the best-known is John Davies’ winter view of Agecroft Power Station (a possible referent for Simon Roberts, Mitch Epstein and others). Like the Bechers in their post-typological work, Davies sought to reveal the tensions of a particular historical conjuncture through sweeping compositions.

John Davies, ‘Agecroft Power Station’, 1983

The towers seem latched to the Earth like alien limpets. But they cascade and ripple into themselves like fabric at the moment of demolition. From the tangles of branches in the foreground, via the expanse of cleared land to the domineering hulk in the background, Davies distils in one image the gradual stripping back of the land in fits and starts of gradual optimisation and frenetic subjugation.

It’s easy enough to overlook the white horse. Standing beside the cars, it throws into relief the layering of historical worlds. At the time of Davies’ visit, Agecroft had another ten years of operation. Now that little sign of it remains (the site is now a prison), the photograph takes on a new resonance. The horse, obsolete for most functional purposes, confronts a concrete behemoth in the twilight of its own productive use.

Shirley Baker, ‘Cooling towers through the rooftops’, Salford, 1962

Here is Agecroft captured twenty years previously by Shirley Baker from a Salford backstreet. From a distance, it has a very different energy. What in Davies comes across as faintly sinister is here almost mundane, blending in with the Victorian chimney stacks. The overall impression is not of encroachment but of managed separation.

In stark contrast is Bill Brandt’s view of 1930s Halifax. Here, the foreground dwellings are fully embroiled within the industrial organism. The towers are the centrepiece of the composition, and probably the standout feature of the lost cityscape. But for me it’s the infinite regress of smokestacks and illusion of a double flattening which make this image great. It’s as though Brandt photographed a model for a Gothic stop-motion, complete with the forced perspective of a delicately painted backdrop.

In a late-career interview, he recalled Halifax as ‘absolutely extraordinary; a real dream town — I’d never seen anything like it before.’ For an artist with his vision and sense of the surreal, this charred forest of brick and mortar must have been an intoxicating sight. Indeed, when looking at his other work from the same period, it’s difficult not to feel a kind of perverse wistfulness for the spectacles of the Industrial Revolution.

A similar feeling is evoked by Michał Cała’s extraordinary series Silesia, captured in the late 70s and 80s when the ‘Black Triangle’ industries were at their zenith. Cała finds beauty not just in cooling towers and sublime juxtapositions, but also in frozen wastelands and the patterns of pollution — perhaps to an uncomfortable extent. His later colour work is less compelling, more a record of structural change in the region than an aestheticization of industry. But I was particularly struck by this tower on the outskirts of Bogatynia in Poland’s south-western extremity.

From Michał Cała, Silesia 2004–2009

The cartoon sun raises intriguing questions. On whose orders was it painted, and for what purpose? It suggests a desire to mediate between technology and nature, to domesticate the structures, perhaps even to celebrate their wealth-creating capacities. It was probably part of a post-communist beautification drive, a bid to brighten up a landscape blighted by decades of lignite mining (the vast open-pit nearby has consumed whole villages). But for all the pastel kitsch, it’s a conspicuously half-hearted intervention. We remain on the plain of a veiled antagonism.

From Alexander Gronsky, Pastoral (2009–2012)

With this wonderfully beguiling photograph by Alexander Gronsky, however, we come close to reconciliation. In the clear skies above the meadow, the clouds seem to drift out of the towers’ lips. The people in the bower introduce a touch of everyday life but, as with Davies’ white horse, they are the magic element which somehow completes the scene.

But as soon as the meta-context comes into focus, the image loses its lustre. It’s not possible to hold in mind the environmentally destructive function to which the towers are annexed without also viewing the image as faintly deceptive — a fantasy of harmonious co-existence. So perhaps it’s best simply to appreciate the photograph on its own terms, to ignore the function of the structures and admire them for their tender curves.

For me, however, such abstracted enjoyment is foreclosed by the bands of the Russian Federation encircling Tower One — a reminder that beyond this lovely edgeland is a world of coercive states. It’s a very different form of embellishment to Bogatynia, a symbol of power and possession which, at the level of Gronsky’s composition, disturbs the harmony of the scene, preventing its totalisation or symbolic closure. And it’s that, I think, which makes it a great photograph.

Marc Riboud, Leeds, 1953

Cambridge grad, photographer and writer. Interested in social theory, image networks, the post-Soviet space.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store