THE dead weeds are waist-high; the piles of rubble, created as 150-years of engineering history were bulldozed aside, are head-high. A woman, handbag in head, head slightly bowed, walks across a post-industrial wasteland, her shiny heels picking a way through the demolished debris of generations of labouring men’s hard work.

What does this photograph – taken exactly 30 years ago next month – say to you? There can be no more iconic image of the North-East in recent decades, and two huge versions of it stare down from the walls of the current exhibition, Wilderness Way, at Mima, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.

The exhibition looks at ten years of Mrs Thatcher’s career from 1977 culminating in the 1987 photographs, were are surrounded by images of protest that still feel red raw. There’s an ironworker’s diary with “no compensation” scrawled across it; there are front covers of steel newspapers telling of acrimonious strikes; there is a gazetteer of forgotten place names – Brixton, Chapeltown, Handsworth and Toxteth – that were burned by bitter riots in 1981; there is US president Ronald Reagan dressed as the fourth horseman of the apocalypse and images of warships sailing to the Falklands; there is the record sleeve of UB40’s vinyl album which includes One in Ten.

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Lest you forget, UB40 got their name from the signing on form number at the job centre, and one-in-ten was about the 9.6 per cent unemployment rate in the band’s hometown. Oh, in the days before streaming and Spotify, in the days even before the old-fashioned CD, vinyl was a black, brittle medium into which music was scratched to make a gramophone record.

I stood in front of the giant photographs this week when I was invited to Mima to record a BBC podcast with the Mima curators (you can hear it on the BBC Tees website) and tried to work out what was going on in Mrs Thatcher’s head as she took her walk through the wilderness.

Amid the desolation, it is tempting to believe she was having a moment of self-realisation, like the way the central character of the book Heart of Darkness and of the film Apocalypse Now breaks down at the end uttering “the horror, the horror”.

In her 11 years as Prime Minister, the North-East lost 248,000 blood and sweat manufacturing jobs: British Steel employees fell from 33,000 to 6,500; coalmining from 23,000 to 9,500 etc…

But no, the image was actually a photo-shoot set up by the re-elected Conservative Government to announce the creation of 12 urban development companies, the largest of which was to be on Teesside. She symbolically walked through the wreckage of the past – the Thornaby site was that of Head Wrightson’s engineering works which had closed in 1984 – to offer hope of a new dawn. Indeed, the Teesside Development Corporation (TDC) boasted that it would transform the wilderness into “the Venice of the North-East”.

Today, while there is not much Venetian splendour on the site, it has certainly been transformed by its tall red brick buildings which mix students with office-based businesses. So Conservatives might say that if you are looking for a true visual representation of Mrs Thatcher’s time, it would be more appropriate to consider a photograph taken a year earlier when she opened the Nissan factory which she had played a large part in bringing to Sunderland.

The wilderness photograph says two other things to me. Firstly, the date: 1987 – eight years after Mrs Thatcher was first elected. One of the biggest criticisms of those Tory years is that while the traditional industrial communities were being shaken out of their past, the Government only belatedly found a plan to help them into the future.

And secondly, when the TDC finished in 1998, it was deeply unpopular. It had done “unconventional deals” without full public scrutiny. Indeed, it had hardly dealt with people at all. It was all about bricks and mortar, and then it was about filling those brick shapes with retail outlets and leisure services. It was not about re-creating a sense of community or of individual purpose or self-worth which had existed in those old-fashioned industrial places.

Do these pictures in an exhibition matter? Well, a similar corporation to the TDC is planned to revive Redcar’s steelworks site. It will have the new Tees Valley mayor to give it the democratic scrutiny that Mrs Thatcher failed to set up, but as well shapes for units, it has to help restore heart to the people and the town, because it could be that when she was walking through the wilderness 30 years ago, Mrs Thatcher was looking to see if there was a soul in the new Britain she was creating.

Wilderness Way runs at Mima until October 8. Mima is open every day from 10am to 4pm except Mondays when it is closed, Sundays when it opens at midday and Thursdays when it closes at 7pm.