The Guardian 2 February, 2005

Book review by Bob Briton

Faces of the Smelter

A collection of photographs
commemorating Port Pirie's industrial heritage and its people.

Photography by Suzanne Laslett and others


There is probably no need to remind Guardian readers that in recent years public discussion about the world of work has been monopolised by the bosses' point of view. The tabloid and broadsheet newspapers, the TV and radio news bulletins and news commentary programs have been busy influencing our view of what work looks like and how it shapes the lives of Australians in the new millennium.

You could be forgiven for thinking we are all small business people or entrepreneurs of some description or high-tech headworkers. The gaps in this perfect world are filled by the hospitality industry. Students and others requiring flexible hours do shorts stints of waitering and bartending before moving onward and upward.

The heavy and dirty work is now being done elsewhere, it seems. Even when the media carries depictions of people clearly still carrying on these demanding and often unpleasant tasks, the dominant image of the "post-industrial" workplace prevails. We have never had it so good, we are told. Grimy, hazardous work has been conquered along with poverty!

Of course, the considerable numbers of Australians who still work in this presumably banished sector of the workforce know different. And every now and then, the reality of these workers' lives gets proper recognition.

Last September a collection of photographs of Port Pirie's lead and zinc smelter, present and past workers and their families was brought together in a book together as part of celebrations marking the 100th Smelter's Picnic. The images in the book were selected from an exhibition commemorating the same event and which was shown at the Port Pirie Regional Gallery in October 2003 and then at the New Land Gallery in Port Adelaide.

The original idea for the exhibition came from Lucia Pilcher, director of the Port Pirie gallery and Kate Jenkins, who was then arts officer with Country Arts SA. Adelaide-based project artist, photographer Suzanne Laslett was chosen to head a team of eight keen amateur photographers from various backgrounds who lived in Port Pirie at the time.

Suzanne's own photos have ended up in private and corporate collections in Australia, UK, Germany, Japan, France, New Zealand and the USA. She has worked both as a journalist and photographer on city, suburban and regional newspapers in New South Wales, Northern Territory and South Australia including in Port Pirie.

Travelling back to Port Pirie was "like revisiting an old friend. Industrial landscapes have always fascinated me and the hard edge of the Smelter looking across river to the backdrop of the Flinders Ranges is a powerful image . But once inside, the immensity of the Smelter 'persona' was overwhelming", Suzanne notes in the introduction to Faces of the Smelter.

In all, the group comprising a retired smelter worker, a teacher on maternity leave, a graphic designer, a year 11 student, a Catholic priest, a local reporter, a member of staff at an insurance office and a police officer produced 960 photographs of the people and the plant. Of those, 87 were enlarged and framed for the exhibition along with 100 smaller images. The photographs in the commemorative book were drawn from the exhibited selection.

The shots of the Smelter then owned by Pasminco, now by Zinifex are startling. Its structures dwarf the people and, as evidenced by the respirators and headgear, threaten them as well. The black and white images convey the griminess of the plant that dominates the town and draws almost universal criticism for its effects of the health of the local people.

While the plant is the subject of very mixed emotions, the workers in the photos are heroic daring to pull chestnuts from the industrial fire so that the rest of us can shop at the hardware mega-mart and other outlets in the midst of abundance. There are also shots of them busy at their own, much smaller-scale projects: showing off their wood-sculpting skills or their tattooed body art, retired workers with their Irish flute and camera, volunteering to drive a community bus.

There are glimpses of generations of family life, the pets and excursions. But towering behind all of this is the Smelter. The stylish, high quality presentation of the book does not gloss over the starkness of the Zinifex facility. If only bulk copies could be bought and left scattered on the coffee tables of the head offices of the corporations that continue to promote that other distorted, sanitised image of the world of work.J

Faces of the Smelter

Photographers: Suzanne Laslett, Mick Dillon, Kellie Higginbottom, Laura Nelson, Karen Rohde, Louise Hausler, Father Joe, Joe Pana, James Vinson

RRP $15 (p&p extra).

Available from Meg's Bookshop in Port Pirie, the Port Pirie Regional Art Gallery or by contacting Suzanne Laslett: 08 8240 1610, slaslett@yahoo.com.au


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