When the European recycling and renewables conglomerate Recyclex sought an industrial photographer with an aptitude for shooting factories and manufacturing facilities, they knew the assignment required someone who lives and breathes all things technical and mechanical, someone accustomed to heat of an industrial furnace. Fortunately, Germany-based photographer Wolfram Schroll’s zeal for industrial images borders on mania, as he himself will admit. His tenacity in producing this type of work immediately charmed the client during their review of his past projects.
Wolfram was tasked with producing dynamic images for both Recyclex’s new website and other future promotional use.
In preparation to shoot over four days and four locations in Germany — Goslar, Langelsheim, Osterwick, and Nordenham — Wolfram went alone to do reconnaissance on the first location. Through production, he was accompanied by his long-time assistant Tina Delia Umlauf.
Specializing in the recycling of lead, zinc, and polypropylene and the production of high-purity metals, Recyclex has been a major player in Europe’s economic system. The company strives to minimize waste and reallocate high purity-metals for better use. In 2018, Recyclex processed 170,000 tons of zinc-rich waste from house roofs, drainpipes, and car bodywork surfaces, eventually reproducing it in everyday products such as tires, chemicals, or cosmetics.
Wolfram was delighted to be able to practice his unique alchemical magic, transforming the dark, gritty underbelly of the metal refining processes into vibrant and striking images. Below, he speaks about the heat, the production line, the workers, and the challenge of producing images of the dark, sometimes menacing machinery that nonetheless evoke a sense of elegance.
This is a dream job, my favorite type of job: to work in a difficult and at first sight completely unphotogenic location. The client’s expectations and wishes were to show a high-quality, professional modern production and [to capture] the products, precious metals like germanium and gallium.
This was not an easy feat. Shooting in the August heat, with interior temperatures soaring over 40° C (104° F) and with sweat pouring over the small buttons and dials on the cameras, Schroll was able to capture images of hot metal pouring over melting containers and the cooling process of moisture glistening on newly cooled germanium.
Due to noxious fumes of the refining processes, Wolfram wore a gas mask, and in the vicinity of the blast furnace, he was required to wear fireproof clothing and gloves.
It’s hot and noisy, and you have to know what you’re doing … You can’t see much through such a mask and can’t see the viewfinder [well]. With the old masks you often had breathing problems. It doesn’t matter to me though, and I don’t think it disturbs the creative process. It simply belongs to industrial photography, just like a helmet and ear protection belong.
Wolfram and long-time assistant Tina Delia Umlauf.
Clearly, being close to the action is what thrills Wolfram. During a previous assignment, he attempted to shoot a large oven using an older camera. The camera began smoking afterwards, resulting in cracks in the frame. Wolfram’s response: “Do not imitate.”
Wolfram narrates: “Here gallium is remelted in an extremely slow process. In the room it is very quiet and you may only move slowly, so that there are no vibrations. In case of vibrations the purity of the metal is not guaranteed. Exciting.”
All of these complications and challenges are par for the course for an industrial photographer. One reason the transformation of these raw materials into imagery has come so naturally to Wolfram is due to the understanding he has gained of the chemical and technical processes taking place in the furnaces. Another, perhaps, is that it is in his blood, as both of his grandfathers were miners.
It’s often hard work they do, and mostly, I think, it is not appreciated enough—their work. For me, they are the secret heroes in industry. I am often only working with a company for a short time. I always try to be very polite, explain everything and when I photograph them, I want to see them portrayed with pride and dignity.
The end results are fascinating images of factory workers, chemical processes, and searing hot metals — the metal has tested the mettle and perseverance of the photographer.
My way of photographing, like most industrial photographers, is a 100-percent physical effort. At that moment I’m not even interested in how the photos turned out. I then look afterwards, and it’s almost always perfect. Well, almost always. All this together is what I love so much about industrial photography. Sometimes I think I have to give my customers money to do that. Maybe I’m a little crazy, too.
Photo assistant: Tina Delia Umlauf
See more of Wolfram Schroll at WolframSchroll.com!
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