An anthropology of ourselves: This Is Your Photo at the Photographers' Gallery

A sleek new exhibition at The Photographers' Gallery emphasises the influence of photography in the early days of the social documentary project Mass Observation.

Mass Observation: This Is Your Photo
Photographers’ Gallery, London W1
 
In the late 1930s, a small group of artists and left-wing intellectuals wrote that Britain required and deserved an “anthropology” of its own people – a “democratic science” to record the small, unacknowledged rituals that provided the texture of lived experience for most people but were largely ignored by the press and rarefied poetry of the day. Kissing on the street, giving and receiving gifts, armpit hair, mantelpieces: no subject would be deemed too trivial, no habit irrelevant.
 
In a loose manifesto, published in the NS in 1937, the group wrote that “the artist and the scientist, each compelled by historical necessity out of their artificial exclusiveness, are at last joining forces and turning back towards the mass from which they had detached themselves”. The documentary movement that became known as Mass Observation was born out of a desire to collate a thorough, empirical record of daily life in Britain. With it came an acknowledgement of two irreconcilable elements: anecdote and evidence; sociological data for scientific analysis, and the human instinct to glorify the quotidian in art.
 
A small exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery offers a precious selection of images that emphasises the importance of photography to the project’s early years. A series of monochrome and colour prints by Humphrey Spender, Julian Trevelyan, John Hinde and Michael Wickham skirts a line between documentary, social realism and surrealism.
 
In Spender’s nervous shots, whole crowds of people turn their back. The Suffolk-born, Cambridge-educated photographer (brother of Stephen) travelled to Bolton, known among observers as “Worktown”, where he failed to be anything other than conspicuous. He lurked outside factory gates, churches and hospitals, camera tucked inside his jacket, not speaking lest his accent give him away. Many of his pictures are of empty cobbled streets, framed in such a way as to defamiliarise them and give them new meaning. They hint at the influence of the founders of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Herbert Read and Roland Penrose, with whom Spender organised the London “International Surrealist Exhibition” in 1936. In one, an alley behind terraced housing dissolves into the mist as rows of billowing shirts and pillowcases seem to levitate above the rooftops.
 
In Trevelyan’s image Industrial Landscape (1937), a man skitters down a muddy bank to the textile mills from which he has, presumably, escaped for a fag and a sandwich. He has turned his back on the photographer who has usurped his position at the top of the hill. It is like watching a Lowry come to life.
 
A second series by Trevelyan seeks to capture the light and dark personalities of Blackpool, the seaside town where 95 per cent of Worktowners spent their holidays. The illuminations, boardwalks, peep shows and palm readers conjure up a primal energy. By looking inward at domestic leisure habits, the images drive the mind out, revealing the uncanny, perverse and carnivalesque.
 
By contrast, in Exmoor Village (1947), Hinde, best known for his meticulous experiments in colour (many of which were turned into postcards for tourists), stages a series of pastoral tableaux to illustrate southern English village life. There are even primitive infographics: visualisations of distances, floor plans and flower beds, aimed at finding a new way of quantifying what is seen.
 
After the war, Mass Observation was increasingly put to commercial use. Many of its founders drifted on to other things. The inexact science of citizen anthropology became the inexact science of market research. The project was incorporated as a private company in 1949 and bought by an ad agency soon after that. Since 1981, a renewed Mass Obs has operated from the University of Sussex, where the original archive is housed.
 
The rest of the show is devoted to this good work: life writing, sketches of home life, clippings from newspapers. The original material made for poor science but occasionally for fantastic art. Today the project is comfortably useless, in commercial terms, but it remains invaluable to our collective memory.
 
“This Is Your Photo” runs until 29 September. Details: thephotographersgallery.org.uk The letter that launched Mass Observation is republished in our 250-page special issue “The New Statesman Century”. To order visit: newstatesman.com/century
Parliamentary by-election – Children hanging around outside 1937/38. Image: Bolton Council, from the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services, courtesy of the Humphrey Spender Archive.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

Getty
Show Hide image

In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred