In brutal close-up, images by the American photographer Bruce Gilden show faces battered by a lifetime of heavy industrial work – and the unlined smooth face of Conor, one of the youngest workers at the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery in London, with an expression that suggests he's looking into an uncertain future.
Gilden, best known for his street photography, joins eight other Magnum photographers in Open For Business, an exhibition, opening at the Science Museum and then touring, which captures the new face of British industry. The images include a sausage maker proudly showing off his new range for the Chinese market, a rigger positioning Shaun the Sheep beside his tiny tree at the Aardman studios, and a lone scenery painter dwarfed by the forest he is creating on a giant backdrop for the opera Lohengrin.
Conor has been sent a copy of his portrait – among the first colour images Gilden has exhibited in the UK – as have all the other workers photographed, including the owner of a magnifently tattoed and biker-ringed hand at the Vauxhall plant, and the man with a hole worn through the sole of his shoe captured at the Bombardier works at Derby by Mark Power wriggling on his stomach under a desk.
With one exception, the manufacturers agreed immediately to give the photographers free range, explained Emma Chetcuti, director of Multistory arts which created the project. The exception was a steel plant, which suggested they should pay for the privilege of coming in. "It turned out afterwards that they were making major redundancies at the time, so there were clearly a few tensions about."
Although some giant projects were captured, including Stuart Franklin's monumental black-and-white images of the 280m aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, many of the industries are small craft operations with a high percentage of skilled handwork.
The photographer David Hurn comes from Cardiff, from a coal mining background, and lives in Tintern. He says he still gets overseas commissions for pictures of miners sitting in a tin bath having their backs scrubbed by their wives.
"I have to explain to them that that's all gone. Coal was killed by Maggie Thatcher, slate is gone, steel has been decimated. The future has to lie in small-scale skilled manufacturing – and what you get there is a real community spirit, as strong as in the coal mines. Shifting seven tons of coal by hand in a day was an awful job, but when your life depends on your colleagues, you have to trust them – that's the spirit that was nearly lost."
Hurn photographed Alison Tod's workshop in Abergavenny where she makes hats he thinks could stand alone as sculptures. He also revelled in the spirit of both the workers and the rainbow colours at Corgi Hosiery in Ammanford which makes cashmere socks – including a range designed by Prince Charles in the colours of all the regiments he heads – employing people from within a five-mile radius, several of whom have been there for more than 50 years.
Some of the exhibition's photographs show such traditional industrial scenes – with sparks flying and metal being bashed, including those taken by Peter Marlow in the Black Country – that they could be archive images from the heroic age of British engineering. But it turns out that this aluminium works is actually creating components for a Bugatti supercar.
Although many of the images look like hard and boring work, some are scenes of quiet beauty: Alessandra Sanguinetti caught Trudi Madden, a cashier in the Siemens canteen in Cheshire, somehow as elegant as a Vermeer lady in her blue hairnet and nylon cap.
Ben Russell, curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum, said the exhibition gave him hope. "People often say to me that Britain makes nothing any more – this exhibition gives the lie to that. The skills are still here, and the imagination. Britain cannot compete with China or the far east in mass manufacturing, but oriental workers are not going to accept such low wages for ever: the tide could turn. I'm very upbeat."
• Open for Business is at the Science Museum in London, free, until 2 November, then touring