Exhibit: North East industry’s artistic champion

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Ian Macdonald’s photographs have a quiet intensity and stillness about them.

Whether an iconic blast furnace, urban landscapes or a portrait of a steel worker, the craft that goes into his work gives it an added depth.

I want people to get a grasp of what I did to honour the dignite of my family

Ian McDonald

Ian Macdonald is an internationally-acclaimed documentary photographer.

Based in Grosmont, he has photographed the people of the North East for the past 40 years.

Recently he returned to complete a residency in Redcar which had a certain poignancy as he had photographed it from the 1970s. This was in response to the £75m investment of the town, to help refurbish the seafront and make it safe.

“I spent a lot of time documenting heavy industry on the Tee’s hinterland,” he said.

“In terms of photography I see myself as a social, historical commentator. I put myself into situations that I can make statements about.

“I take a long time soaking up and absorbing.

“Inspiration comes from painters such as Monet who took himself off into the countryside and found something to say. Nobody else will do these things, for me it is about what individuals do and how they react to their environment.

“The way that I respond to art is in a visual way, as opposed to an intellectual or conceptual approach.”

I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a documentary photographer.

“If you analyse social documentary the bedrock of it is done for external reasons such as commisions from newspapers or magazines. My reasoning is different as it is purely my choice.”

Ian often starts with drawing to adapt to his environment before he picks up a camera and can spend hours doing portraits or charcoal and pastel landscapes.

This scrutiny helps him develop the essence of what his subject is.

“I’ve sat with lads drawing them being part of what they are. I’m involved in places at a different level and drawing focuses that,” he said.

Spending time in and around steel works, shipbuilders and docks resulted in the book ‘Blast Furnace’, a hymn to the industry and men of the north.

This was as much about the history, culture and legacy of the area.

Though at the time no one involved thought that in 30 years this would come to an end. The pride of the area was born in the 1880s when Middlesborough made a third of the world’s steel.

Ian said: “I like continuity and keep going back to familiar places and faces. Its important to build up trust. I always ask permission and make people aware of what I’m doing. I don’t want smiling faces or posed portraits. I want them to carry on as normal.

“It’s important to try and make pictures that have qualities that you may not be conscious of at the time.

“Searching for the idea that sums up how that connects to you, your life and your subjects life in that environment.

“I found capturing an emotion or sense of place difficult to express in drawings.

“To photograph it was the easier route. I connected so much more quickly with a camera. Although it is not at all easy to create an image that means something to me and other people.

“That’s not the main pursuit but my photographs have to have meaning about where I’m from and the richness of the place.”

Context and creating a visual poetry is what Ian aims for in his work.

“Reading poetry simplifies on one level, but it is sophisticated at the same time,” he said.

The essence of Ian’s history is in the steelworks, the industry that he documents is a social legacy to the historical importance of what the North meant and what the North has lost.

Hard work that helped to make this country rich deserves the recognition from a lens that appreciates the craft and beauty of industry.

Ian said:“In my book Blast Furnace I was trying to give something of the history pertinent to Teesside.

“I want people to get a grasp of what I did to honour the dignity of my own family, my grandfather, father and uncles.”

Their heritage was built on 160 years of iron-making.

The economic downturn hit Middlesborough, Redcar and the Tees hard.

With the collapse of the British Steel, Ian’s portraits and landscapes of the North East feel even more precious.

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