View inside the Norwich Works exhibition at Norwich Castle.

When we used to make things…

We cannot recommend enough that you visit the new Norwich Works exhibition of The Industrial Photography of Walter and Rita Nurnberg at Norwich Castle right now.

The exhibition shines a spotlight on the remarkable and beautiful photographs by Walter and Rita Nurnberg capturing post-war working life in three Norwich factories. But their journey from the archives to the gallery wall is itself a fascinating one of chance and rediscovery.

The story began in 2020 when Dr Nick Warr, Lecturer in Art History and Curation at the University of East Anglia, was approached by a curator of the Museum of Norwich for his opinion on the conservation of a photographic album of Edwards & Holmes shoe factory workers.

Covid intervened before he was able to examine the album in person, and it wasn’t until August 2021 that Dr Warr could see the images for himself. What he found was an archive of photographs of extraordinary quality which immediately prompted further research into the photographer behind the captivating images: Walter Nurnberg.

This led him to the archives of the Norfolk Record Office where he discovered more examples of Nurnberg’s work carefully preserved among their Boulton & Paul and Mackintosh-Caleys archive collections. Enthused by the wealth of material he was uncovering, especially in relation to Rita Nurnberg who processed and printed all of Walter’s negatives, he invited his university colleague, Dr Simon Dell, Associate Professor of Art History, to collaborate on the research.

The pair gave a public talk on their discoveries in Norwich which was to prove pivotal when an audience member recognised her grandfather as the subject of one of the images from the Edwards & Holmes album. He’d worked at the shoe factory in the late 1940s and she even had the exact same photograph hanging on her wall at home.

The encounter inspired the proposal for an exhibition, co-curated by Dr Warr and Dr Dell, which celebrates both the artistic quality of the Nurnbergs’ work, while also telling the stories of those workers who helped restore life to the city of Norwich after the trauma of war.

It’s hoped that the exhibition and accompanying catalogue will prompt other people to come forward with their memories so that more of the individuals depicted in the photographs can be identified.

The three Norwich manufacturing institutions which the Nurnbergs photographed in, in the post-war period are Boulton and Paul, Mackintosh-Caley, and Edwards & Holmes.

Aside from the gorgeous artistic merit and the significance of their contribution to the birth and development of commercial photography, it is a beautiful visual love letter to erstwhile industries of post-war Norwich.

Being old enough to remember when the city centre smelled of chocolate from Rowntree Mackintosh, and when you hear the stories of the individual workers on the films on display, one feels quite nostalgic for a time when Norwich was a hub of making.

I still think it’s pretty cool that we once had a chocolate factory in the heart of the city. It’s the stuff of childhood dreams…

Featuring over 130 original photographic prints alongside objects from Norwich Castle’s own collections relating to the city’s industrial past and newly digitised archive film, the exhibition is a partnership between Norfolk Museums Service, The University of East Anglia, Norfolk Record Office and The East Anglian Film Archive. It is sponsored by the East Anglia Art Fund.

Photography of Walter and Rita Nurnberg at Norwich Castle.

Walter Nurnberg (1907-91) was already a celebrated advertising photographer when in 1947 he decided to change his career and embarked upon a two-decade long project to document the industries of Britain, visiting Norwich four times in the process. Together with his wife, Rita (1914 – 2001), they brought the aesthetic of the Bauhaus and the dramatic lighting of Expressionist cinema to bear on the factory environment – both the machinery of its production lines and the people who operated them.

Their beautiful, stylised compositions occasionally border on the surreal. Mysterious machinery casts dramatic shadows while striking portraits of workers lean into the glamour and beauty of Hollywood’s golden age – from the time-worn faces of the master artisan to teenage apprentices shining with enthusiasm.

The process of creating the photographs was complex, involving the use of a medium format camera and elaborate lighting rigs. Walter’s meticulously choreographed images were then processed by Rita to produce photographic prints of extraordinary quality – it is these prints which form the core of the exhibition.

Norwich Works is on now until 14 April 2024. Included with general admission. It’s wonderful. Go see it.

Exhibition Details

Norwich Works: The Industrial Photography of Walter & Rita Nurnberg.
at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery
The exhibition runs until Sunday 14 April 2024.

The exhibition is a partnership between Norfolk Museums Service, The University of East Anglia, Norfolk Record Office and The East Anglian Film Archive.
Book tickets in advance and get information on opening times and admission prices.