The textile industry dominated the New England social landscape for 150 years. From his first visit to a Fall River textile mill in 1973, Steve Dunwell has been fascinated and obsessed with documentation of this industrial environment. Over a four-year period, he was able to visit dozens of mills around New England, from tiny factories on country streams to huge industrial complexes on our biggest rivers. Several mill owners gave “go anywhere” permission, with the warning “don’t get hurt.” While textile employment had dropped precipitously, there were still many thousands of people at work. “You should have seen this 20 years ago,” they often lamented.
“With These Hands” presents 24 portraits of textile workers made between 1973 and 1977. This core was supplemented with images from mill communities and an illustrated history to create The Run of the Mill (Godine Press, 1978).
With antique job titles – weaver, doffer, fixer, beamer, millwright, mule spinner – these workers were proud of their skills and mostly pleased with their trade. Typical comments: “I could retire, but I wouldn’t think of it.” “ I can run every machine in the mill.” “I brought the lunch pail to my dad, and started when I was 14.” At the same time, pride was colored by sadness and some anger that the industry was declining so fast. “I don’t want my kids to work here,” was often heard, and no one likes a lay-off.
“With These Hands” captures a special time in a unique environment. These workers are primarily the children of immigrants. Their parents came from Ireland, Quebec, Poland, and Greece; all drawn to jobs in the mills that ran full bore for over a century. The cycle continued with new immigrants from the Azores. It takes hard work to keep these machines running. These are the ones who did it.
This exhibit is at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, from September 26 to January 24.
STEVE DUNWELL makes photographs of New England – its people, landscape, and industry – for publications, for collectors, and for advertising. Many of his photographs are featured in fourteen picture books on regional subjects.
Industrial history has been a primary interest for Dunwell throughout his professional career. Between 1973 and 1977, he photographed inside and around numerous textile mills in New England. Combined with a rich illustrated historical narrative, this work was published as The Run of the Mill by David R. Godine Press in 1978.
“With These Hands” is a collection of the textile worker portraits that formed the core of that mill documentation project.
In 1980, Dunwell worked with Michael Folsom to document the existing condition of the F. C. Lowell mill at Waltham for the Historic American Engineering Record. Folsom did the groundwork for the re-use of this mill for housing, and created the Charles River Museum of Industry on the site.
Since that time, Dunwell has continued to visit and document industrial sites around New England, with a special emphasis on early hydro power and textiles. He also works on corporate and editorial assignments, concentrating on architecture and aerials. His outstanding regional images are published by Back Bay Press, including Extraordinary Boston and the best-selling Boston Freedom Trail.
Steve Dunwell lives in Boston. His photographs are included in numerous corporate and private collections as well as museums and libraries.