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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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

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Property programmes are torture for millennials - so why do we keep watching?

Once aspirational, property TV shows now carry a whiff of sadism. 

I watch property programmes because I like inflicting pain on myself.

That’s the only conclusion I, as a millennial, can come to. I must be a masochist, because I enjoy seeing people with more money than I’ll ever have buying homes I’ll never be able to afford.

There was a time when, for me at least, watching property shows was an act of dissent. In the mid 2000s, catching Homes Under the Hammer during its 10am timeslot as a teenager was the ultimate sign of rebellion, because you should, by rights, be in school. Ditto with Location Location Location, Escape to the Country or any of the litany of property programmes which have been going strong since the turn of the century.

Now, though, I realise that these property shows are not simply designed for adolescents pulling sickies. In fact, I’m not the prime target audience for these shows at all. The people who actually appear on these shows are whiter than white, comfortably middle-class and able to splash the cash from years of good jobs. They couldn’t be further away from a working class, white-passing millennial in an age defined by the mortgage crisis and subsequent financial crash.  

It wasn't always this way. When Location, Location, Location began in 2000, 20 per cent of young people and 80 per cent of middle-aged people owned their own home. Rewind a decade, to 1991, and just north of 35 per cent of 16-24 year olds owned their own home. By 2013-2014, that figure had fallen to under 10 per cent. On average, house prices have risen 7 per cent each year since 1980. Job security is hugely decreased. The average deposit needed to buy a property in London, where jobs are most plentiful, has risen by £76,000 in the last decade. 

In short, in 2017, watching a property programme as a millennial is simply a reminder that the ladders have all been pulled up. 

To add insult to injury, political attempts to help young renters, like that of Ed Miliband's 2015 manifesto, face a backlash from Britain's well-organised and vocal landlord class. It's a small comfort that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have proposed reforms, since this parliament looks likely to be dominated by Brexit. On the plus side, as far as sofa bums are concerned, appalling renting conditions has spawned a new genre of gritty reality TV typified by When the Landlords Moved In. 

So why do I keep watching programmes about people I do not resemble buying houses I cannot afford? Simply because property programmes make undeniably good viewing. Teenagers argue on Twitter about which of them would be the better replacement for Grand Designs’ iconic presenter Kevin McCloud. One friend I spoke to about the show called it "daydream material".

"It's really satisfying to watch", she said. "There's something about seeing people be able to build their dream houses that's interesting. I like thinking about what my house would look like." Another said that "it's a nosiness thing combined with seeing how the other half live". Another friend I spoke to, a couple of years younger than me, couldn’t describe the allure specifically, simply saying “I just like houses”. 

Twitter hosts a number of young fans who also like houses:

Why indeed, Ally. Why indeed.

Other millennial users are brokenhearted that Kirstie and Phil, the pair who host Location Location Location, are not, in fact, a real couple:

There’s something else here though, aside from on-screen sexual tension. It goes back to that idea of "daydream material". It’s an image of what could be – of what should be. You can’t help but be excited for the homeowners featured on the programme, especially if they’re buying their first home or expanding to a home for life. It’s an infectious feeling of what we’d like to have. It’s hope.

Granted, it might be futile. Despite Brexit, a shortgage of homes means house prices don't look set to plummet any time soon. And millennials don't seem likely to afford them - figures released yesterday make clear that though employment has gone up, wages remain stagnant.

There doesn't appear to be any real way out, except for a permanent sojourn in the letting market. As a result, property TV is actually perfect "reality" TV. Like living in the Big Brother house, or finding "love" on an island, or winning £1,000,000 through being a nerd, property TV has ascended from its roots as programming designed to inform and entertain, to the realm of unantainable, glossy wish-fulfilment, as removed from real life as that Total Wipeout assault course.

And yet, the hope lives on. It might not be yet – it might not even be soon - but Phil and Kirstie, when you come for me, I’ll be ready.