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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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times