Art of Photography

Rob Townsend

Exhibition: Mass Observation: This Is Your Photo


Mass Observation

I’ve been meaning to visit the Photographers’ Gallery in London for a while and last week I made an after-work trip on its Thursday late night opening and took in a couple of exhibitions.

Two floors of the gallery are taken up with a celebration of Mass Observation, a social experiment started in 1937 to document everyday Britain. Two of the major phases in the life of the project are examined, and I was drawn to how very different they are, and how differently I reacted to the two halves of the exhibition.

Early days

One floor is taken up with the work of the Mass Observation collective in its first incarnation, starting just before the Second World War. During this period it was the work of a group of trained volunteers observing people going about their everyday lives. Much of the work is by established photographer Humphrey Spender, and centres on the working classes in Bolton (codenamed ‘Worktown’ by the organisation) and the same communities at play in Blackpool. As a Lancashire lad I found these images particularly interesting. A recent feature in The Guardian [1] reveals a fascinating lack of interest in the photography at the time:

Paradoxically, though, Spender’s photographs, which are now recognised as an important part of the Mass Observation archive, were never used at the time. “The images were always there to provide a focus for the written material, which was the core of the project,” elaborates Russell Roberts […] “They were purely informational and not meant to be artistic in any way. So from Spender’s photographs of a crowd at a Bolton Wanderers game, the Mass Observation researchers could count how many men were wearing hats at a football match. It was this kind of statistical detail that they collated and processed in their excavation of the everyday.”

Parliamentary by-election – Children hanging around outside, 1937/38 by Humphrey Spender — Courtesy of the Humphrey Spender Archive / Bolton Council

It’s not known whether Spender himself saw his work in the same light, or whether he had claims to any higher art or documentary worth. It seems slightly odd to me that he could have been happy with the only audience for his work being a bunch of researchers treating his images as nothing more than raw statistical material – who knows. Maybe this gave him the freedom to just capture what was in front of him, with no agenda. Maybe that was the entire point. Whatever the motives at the time, looking back on these images now is truly fascinating. It provides a series of slices of life that evoke an era close enough to be in the memories of some folk that are still around, yet historical for most of us.

Spender was clearly a talented photographer. As well as his contribution to Mass Observation he earned a living variously doing commercial photography and working for publications such as the Daily Mirror and the Picture Post, plus a stint as a war photographer.

The revival

According to the literature supporting the exhibition, there was a second phase of Mass Observation in the 1950s where it morphed into a more commercial market research organisation, although this era wound up a decade later. The whole enterprise was then revived in 1981, and this third phase is the subject of the other half of the Photographers’ Gallery exhibition.

This revived social experiment took a very different approach to the original: rather than sending trained photographers around the country to observe the people, it focused entirely on self-reporting. A number of volunteers were recruited to record their own lives against a series of specific ‘directives’, in the form of diaries, other writings and when appropriate, photographs.

I must confess I found myself completely unmoved by this portion of the exhibition, and I had to think about why that was. My first thought was that it was a function of my familiarity with the era: whilst the 1930s/40s images showed me a genuinely different time, the photos from the 1980s/90s showed me slices of a life that I had lived through once already, so barring a slightly kitsch sense of nostalgia, they held no allure, no interest, no reason to linger around the image. But this explanation didn’t really work for me. The other exhibition I saw the same evening was entirely contemporary and yet held my interest so much more. So it can’t be wholly down to the era of the images.

Snapshots, 'One Day For Life', 1987

Snapshots, ‘One Day For Life’, 1987

The second thing that struck me was the presentation format. While the 1930s/40s images were large format, high quality black and white prints, mounted and framed to normal exhibition sizes and standards, the 1980s/90s shots were literally amateur snapshots, 6″x4″ prints from the chemists, lined up in a row on a shelf behind glass, with their edges curling up. Now, I understand why they were presented like this, to emphasise their provenance as true ‘photos of the people’, but their diminutive size and lo-fi quality made them entirely uninteresting beyond a passing glance. I pondered whether the best of them would look as visually interesting as the 30s/40s shots if blown up to poster size and professionally framed; possibly. But I’ll never know, as they weren’t.

Related to the last point, but to me the overriding reason why I was so unmoved by the images, is the fact that they were all taken by amateurs. This is potentially a patronising viewpoint to put forward, but I genuinely believe the reason the vast majority of these images were so easy to walk past without a second glance was not the size, or the over-familairity – they just weren’t very good pictures. Valuable artefacts from a social experiment, maybe; but compelling as photographs? Not to me.

In the current photographic climate, with 40 million photos uploaded to Facebook daily, the need for an exercise like Mass Observation seems wildly unnecessary; we’re all recording everyday life all the time, probably too much. But the overriding feeling I got from the Mass Observation exhibition was that, while the need was there, the aesthetic outcomes of the work was far superior when they entrusted it to photographers who knew how to take a good photo.

‘This Is Your Photo’

The title of the exhibition is interesting, if slightly ambiguous. It takes its name from a Humphrey Spender photo of this phrase inscribed in chalk on a wall, yet in the first half of the show all the images were captured by Spender et al. They were of ‘you’ (the people) but not by you. In the second half, the photos were by ‘you’ but a lot less aesthetically interesting for it.

An interesting footnote: as part of the exhibition, the gallery has teamed up with The Guardian to hold a series of weekly ‘directives’ (“funeral”, “mantelpiece”, “breakfast” etc) for people to submit their own images against, and selected photos are shown in the foyer. So the whole enterprise is a curious mix of:

  • selected historic images by professionals
  • representative historic images by amateurs
  • curated contemporary images by enthusiasts.

Interesting as it was, I’m not entirely sure it all hung together as a whole.

1.; accessed 03/09/13


4 thoughts on “Exhibition: Mass Observation: This Is Your Photo

  1. Your post reminded me of a book I have from the V&A called Recording Britain. It covers an exercise carried out from 1939 to 1943 that produced ‘1,549 topographical watercolours of places and buildings of characteristic national interest’. Covering mainly England it was concerned with recording the changing face of the environment at an emotional rather simply factual level. There was a real fear that war would destroy what everyone was fighting for and therefore an urgency to record it.

    The view held at the time was that photography could not impart emotional meaning to an image and that it was simply factual. Artists such as John Piper were involved but nevertheless the choice of watercolour seems somewhat anachronistic given photography was available and both faster and more efficient. Interestingly photography was adopted for the National Buildings Record in 1941 but watercolour remained the medium for this exercise and I think this was because they ‘ ….wanted artists to produce what he called ‘sympathetic records’ of designated subjects. Speaking specifically of churches he felt that ‘Their colour and character cannot be rendered by photography’. He was also motivated by a desire to support artists who were suffering very great distress …….since the start of the war’. (The ‘he’ was Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery at the time).

    The interesting part of the book for me now is that the original watercolours are often shown with either contemporary B&W or later colour photographs where the buildings still exist and until I read your blog I had not remembered this. I will now re-read this book from a completely different view from the one I originally read it (I.e an interest in watercolour) and it will be fascinating to see how they compare now given my renewed interest in photography.

    • Ah, that’s a really interesting facet to this whole subject and the era… photography did seem to be treated with a certain level of suspicion in the late 30s / early 40s, not just from a wartime surveillance point of view, but from a “but is it art?’ point of view. It sometimes seems that for much of its existence, photography hasn’t been taken all that seriously! It seems ludicrous to me that someone would make a blanket statement that the colour and character of a church “cannot be rendered by photography”. The definition of photography as ‘simply factual’ completely fits with the surprising fact that Spender’s Mass Observation images weren’t considered a core part of the project but merely raw data.

      What I didn’t realise until I read your comment was that at about the same time as Mass Observation was starting, watercolour painting was still considered the best medium for an archival project! One assumes that since photography was invented, it would have taken over such tasks as being so much better suited. But in a way, is it so different to the fact that black and white photography continues to exist alongside colour? or that film co-exists with digital?…

  2. Pingback: Exhibition: Ma Samaritaine 2013 | Rob Townsend

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