Slaves to Coke A Photographic Journey into Germany's Steel Past

Steel is in Germany's blood. With the Continent looking to Essen this year, as the Capital of European Culture 2010, the city is looking back on its industrial past. Photos taken by photographer Karlheinz Jardner in 1983 of what was then Europe's largest coking plant provide a unique look at an industry that has since largely vanished from the banks of the Ruhr River.

Workers on break at the Zollverein Coking Plant in Essen in 1983.
Karlheinz Jardner

Workers on break at the Zollverein Coking Plant in Essen in 1983.

By Marita Pfeiffer and


Worker number 8211 began his shift by punching in at Gate 1 of the Zollverein Coking Plant, part of the massive steel manufacturing complex in the German city of Essen. Not long later, the 57-year-old Otto Jardner, dressed in his work clothes, was seated in the driver's cab of the coke-quenching car. He glanced into the quenching house before driving the machine toward the red-hot coke. A huge cloud of steam rose from the quenching tower. After the coke had been quenched, he allowed the black nuggets to drip dry, and then he dumped them onto a ramp for cooling. Jardner repeated the same procedure about 40 times per shift, removing load after load from the furnace, being careful not to allow any of the red-hot nuggets to fall on the tracks.

Jardner had been working for 30 years as a machinist at various steel plants in Germany's industrial Ruhr region. That day in April 1983 was the first time his son, the 30-year-old photographer Karlheinz Jardner, had ever come to the plant. He was there to document the final days of his father's career, spent at the Zollverein in Essen.

Photo Gallery

24  Photos
Photo Gallery: Scenes from the Ruhr's Industrial Past

The photo series was part of a project for a seminar entitled "Exploration of Places in the Ruhr Region," which Jardner was taking at the Folkwang School in Essen, where he studied photography. But just 10 years later, his photos would become vital for their documentation of Germany's rapidly disappearing industrial heartland. The offered a rare look at the day of a worker at Europe's largest and most advanced coking plant -- and into the tedium of everyday work in a crisis-ridden region. It is a piece of family and cultural history. The Zollverein Coking Plant was shut down in 1993, as a result of a number of steel crises and the related restructuring. This year, Essen, partly due to the success of that restructuring, is the European Capital of Culture.

'How Can Anybody Work Here?'

The photos offer a clear sense of the familiarity between the photographer and his subject. They transport the viewer to Otto Jardner's place of work and provide an intimate look at everyday scenes. "My mother cried when she saw the photos for the first time," says the son. In all those years, the wife of factory worker Jardner never knew exactly what her husband did at work, day after day.

The son didn't know either. "How can anybody work here?" he thought to himself, as his father accompanied him through the plant. "I wouldn't last a month."

The loud noise, the heat and the smoke-filled air were unbearable. But the father persevered for years, and the younger Jardner was repeatedly shocked as he took the photographs. He thought of scenes from his youth, such as the morning when he and his sister walked into the kitchen for breakfast and wrinkled their noses when they saw their father, just back from the night shift, eating fried herring. "We were going to school, while he was going to bed," he recalls.

The coking plant imposed its rhythm onto the workers, a rhythm that was often the polar opposite of normal family life. Once they have been fired up, coke ovens have to be kept at high temperatures at all times, around the clock, including weekends and holidays, even on Christmas Eve. There is no room for absenteeism or mistakes, and working in a coking plant is fraught with danger. "There were times when our father would simply sit there, and our mother would tell us to leave him alone, because a fellow worker had had a fatal accident," Karlheinz Jardner relates.

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