A landscape shaped by steel

Port Talbot Image copyright © Tom Tapolczay

The UK steel industry is fighting for its survival and has been since Tata Steel announced in March that it was considering selling its UK steel business, putting thousands of jobs at risk. Photographer Tom Tapolczay decided to investigate.

Tapolczay took an oblique view of the subject, concentrating his lens on the landscape around what he sees as the most influential steelworks from the past 50 years.

"I spent seven months visiting Port Talbot, Redcar, Scunthorpe and Sheffield, speaking to locals, steelworkers, attending rallies and protests and speaking to MPs. Yet most importantly I captured how these magnificent constructions impose themselves on their native landscapes.

"That these iconic constructions could all too soon be erased is a chilling thought considering nearly all of the local towns and cities were built upon and thrived due to steel. If the steel industry is lost, it will not just be the loss of an industry but the loss of the heart of such communities."

Image copyright © Tom Tapolczay
Image caption Port Talbot steelworks seen from Aberavon Beach

He photographed the project on 120 film, using a Hasselblad 500c and a Rolleiflex Automat, both built before 1965.

"I feel the subconscious process you go through when working manually is completely lost when a computer can do it for you in a fraction of the time. These small decisions at the inception and during your work can have a huge effect on the end result," he says.

Tapolczay's dedication to the work shines through in each picture. He notes that the hours spent waiting for the right light gave him time to think about the narrative of the piece.

The work is presented in an exquisite handmade book, lovingly stitched together by Tapolczay himself, for the final project on his course.

Here is a selection of images from the book.

Image copyright © Tom Tapolczay
Image caption A Tata Steel train carries fresh steel rolls out of the Port Talbot Tata steelworks, a sign that life and production still exists. Steel rolls, along with steel wire, are the biggest exports of freshly produced steel from the remaining steelworks within Britain. Uses of these products ranges from construction to car manufacturing.
Image copyright © Tom Tapolczay
Image caption Looking down on to Tata Steel's UK headquarters based in Port Talbot, one of the oldest and largest remaining steelworks in the UK.
Image copyright © Tom Tapolczay
Image caption An old electric horn lies abandoned on the edge of the coal reserve at Redcar, a sign of the previous activity at what was the second largest blast furnace site in Europe. The atmosphere at Redcar steelworks is now an eerily quiet one. Once again the sea and long marshland grass can be seen and heard in the distance with clear air and good visibility.
Image copyright © Tom Tapolczay
Image caption Looking up to Port Talbot steelworks from the coast that leads on to the Bristol Channel. Historically Wales has been an industrial powerhouse, not only for coal mines but also steelworks, due to its strategic location with many waterways and an extensive railway network for transportation of raw materials and finished goods. Yet, in contrast, its location can often offer an unforgiving climate to be working in.
Image copyright © Tom Tapolczay
Image caption The coal reserve at Port Talbot with a coal crane and Tata Steel storage tank in the background. If the ovens and furnaces are also closed at Port Talbot, there won't be any need for such a large amount of coal, meaning there will be the additional costs of transporting coal to a site that requires it. As with any large industry there are often huge amounts of money tied up in raw materials.
Image copyright © Tom Tapolczay
Image caption Hundreds of tonnes of slag and waste deposits were dumped on the South Gare as the Redcar Steelworks slowly grew, moving inland as it did so. As the industry developed, various regulations regarding waste disposal, operating costs and emissions were introduced. Some feel these regulations need to be reassessed in order to put Britain back on "a level playing field" to compete in the world steel industry.
Image copyright © Tom Tapolczay
Image caption As much as steel has become integrated within the local people and community of the Redcar area, it has now become integrated within the landscape. The process of deconstruction of the steelworks and decontaminating the land within and nearby is still under consideration. It will prove not only a lengthy but also extremely expensive process - all, in essence, to erase a vast chunk of history from the area.
Image copyright © Tom Tapolczay
Image caption Within the No 1 blast furnace at the historic Neath Abbey Ironworks, steel structural reinforcements can be seen lying derelict and weakened. Reinforcements were installed during the 1990s in order to preserve the magnificent structure further, using the material this works once produced on a grand scale. The works were located next to the Clydach river which was dammed in order to supply a steady flow of water and power.

You can see more work by Tom Tapolczay on his website.