I came across the hemp factory for the first time this autumn, quite by chance, while taking photographs in Edessa, a small town in northern Greece, famous for its waterfalls and hydroelectric power plant.
The factory was opened in 1913 and enjoyed its heyday in the period between the wars, producing rope and string from hemp imported from Benares in India.
The main machine area is of particular architectural interest, nine massive bays in succession, their walls pierced by large windows, with lintels and unconcealed, inclined timber ceilings creating lofty, triangular gables. The factory is perched on a level area at the edge of a cliff, above the rushing waters of the waterfall and looking eastwards, out across the plain.
I came across the factory quite without warning – with no idea what I was about to see! The sight that met my eyes on arrival - the factory bathed in the morning light, bringing out every detail of the machines and equipment – was both unique and magical. An irresistible challenge to the photographer!
How was one to set about photographing such a complex place? A tangled mass of machinery, made up of more than twenty different pieces of equipment, all of different types, some made in England, some in Germany, all assembled in the pursuit of a single objective: the manufacture of string and rope.
How could one capture in a single photograph a process so complex and highly organized? How could one turn back the clock to convey not only the noise and bustle of the production floor, but also the long voyage of the hemp from the Indian sub-continent to the Procrustes machine in Edessa, where through a torturous process of stretching and twisting it would be transformed into sturdy rope?
I took photographs for more than three hours, and some of the shots were interesting. But as is so often the case, at the end of a session, when you feel you have extracted all the subject has to offer, suddenly a more complete vision comes to you. Through an opening in the side of the building, beside one of the longer machines in the factory, I discovered a remarkable prospect, a composition that spoke to me immediately, seeming to conceal within itself the whole history of the building, its energy and complexity, sound and movement, the rhythm of the powerful machines pulling, twisting and turning the hemp into rope, the speed and incessant motion of the production line – in short: the entire, complex process of manufacture!
I put the Phase One with the IQ260 back and the 28mm wide-angle lens back on the tripod, facing through the opening in the wall, with an unimpeded view into the interior of the machine. The light and the angle of incidence were almost perfect.
I opted for for ISO50 and f14 for the clearest possible definition of all the details – details which spoke to me so powerfully and which had to be recorded with absolute clarity! I decided to centre the shot at exactly that height which would create an illusion of exaggerated scale, in both the metal arches and the hooked tentacles of the machine, which thus took on the appearance of fully extended, giant human arms. The intention was to align the viewer’s eye with the path taken by the strands of hemp, as if sharing their tortuous progress through the various parts of the machine.
Finally, I made all the minor adjustments necessary to ensure complete symmetry on all levels, making sure all the lines converged on just one point, the bright centre of the window in the rear wall of the factory, a final focal point through which the eye and mind of the observer could pass into the infinite vista of the past … or perhaps the future, if we approach the subject from the other direction!
The RAW files were processed mainly using Capture One 7, and fine-tuned with Photoshop.
When I study the result, this photograph of the inner shell of a derelict industrial space, it gives me the sense of an inert, mechanical organism, or rather a ‘barren’ machine system, abandoned, no longer engaged in the work for which it was created.
It now resembles a three-dimensional sculpture, seen from within, rather than a functioning part of an industrial production process!
What I find particularly striking are the elements of rigorous symmetry and discipline uniting so many cast-iron components, sculpted in a baroque aesthetic, arranged in a linear assembly, ranked in almost military array, almost terrifying in their effect.
It is like a scene from the Holy Inquisition, the hemp tortured into shape, twisted and turned into new life.
With the human presence gone, the machines now silent, the light in the distant background is like the daylight at the end of a mysterious catacomb. But there too, the light must filter through a grid, echoing and reinforcing the overall aesthetic impression of a spider’s web of metal structures.
The silent inactivity of the scene enhances our sense of pleasure, reminding us of the inestimable value of experiences which transcend the strictly functional and utilitarian.
The hemp factory in Edessa gave my imagination an opportunity to re-create the industrial spirit of this area a hundred years ago, capturing a last resonance of that energy in its still, silent remains…