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

FOX
Show Hide image

Will the latest wave of revivals, with X-Files leading the way, serve or undermine loyal fans?

How fandoms are affected when their favourite characters return to their screens.

The X-Files has returned to television. The beloved sci-fi drama, which was on screen for nine years (plus two feature films, including nobody’s favourite, 2008’s I Want to Believe), wrapped up in 2002. More than a decade later, the show is back on FOX for a six-episode run, a length that’s standard in Britain but new to American broadcast audiences used to 22-episode seasons.

And last night, before the US watched the fourth episode, everyone in the UK who hadn’t already found another way to watch it saw the series premiere on Channel 5.

Watching America watch the premiere was a curious thing. I’ve never been an X-Files fan (for no particular reason, I just never got down to it), but spending your time deep in fan culture means having plenty of friends who cut their teeth on X-Files fandom in the mid- to late-Nineties.

Modern media fandom was born in online X-Files communities, laying templates for a lot of our current language and practices. The most prominent example might be the term “ship”, short for relationship, because the fandom was (and still is?) divided between shippers – proponents of MSR, or “Mulder/Scully relationship”, a desire to see the two leads move past platonic affection onscreen – and “no-romos”, who, as you might guess, wanted the opposite. Two decades later, “ship” has spread far beyond the fandom where it originated, or even beyond fandom at large.

The X-Files wasn’t just a fan favourite, though: far from some cult sleeper hit, it was the kind of mainstream success that the network tapped to air after the Super Bowl one year (that particular episode, in 1997, earned 29m viewers). So when the new series premiered, I watched with interest as America seemed to fall over itself in excitement. The start-time was pushed back due to a late NFL championship game, and the entire internet seemed to be clamouring to get the football off the screen. And when the show finally came on, I watched the collective glee.

It was fascinating to see a Nineties mainstay get the instant-collective-reaction treatment of the social media era, but I was abstractly worried, too: people who’d seen preview screenings were reporting that the first episode was pretty terrible, and I was ready for some serious backlash.

I messaged a friend, one of those whose first fandom experience was The X-Files, and she told me, with considerable confidence, that it didn’t matter. “Nobody cares,” she said.It’s not about that – it’s about having them on TV again.”

Sure enough, as the episode concluded, I gauged a similar sentiment among fans: “That wasn’t very good . . . I’VE MISSED THIS SHOW SO MUCH.”

I got in touch with a few long-time X-Files fans to ask if they felt this ambivalence. Aloysia Virgata told me that, despite initial trepidation (she’s been wary since the 2008 film), she was hopeful. “As the filming progressed, as David and Gillian proved to have developed a lovely friendship that was a joy to watch, as the promotional team got their feet under them, I found myself back in the Nineties, scheduling appointment TV.”

And Dasha K said: “Mulder and Scully are wonderful, complex characters and I'd watch them doing just about anything as long as we got snappy dialogue and longing looks between them. The X-Files revival is more than a nostalgic experience for me. It’s setting off with some old friends for new adventures.”

Fans tend to stick by their favourite characters. It’s sort of one of our defining features. Some people watch a film again and again to memorise every fact; others might build on fictional worlds in stories of their own – there are a lot of reasons to write fanfiction, but a common one is that you aren’t quite ready to give up the characters you love.

We hold on to them after shows are cancelled too soon, or after individuals or relationships are massacred in the writers’ room. But one question leaves us divided: if you could have these characters back, if this show could come back on the air, would you even want it to?

If the past decade has been the era of the reboot, we’re embarking on the era of the revival. The X-Files isn’t the first big show to be resurrected – Family Guy springs to mind, or the Netflix series of Arrested Development, or the 2014 Veronica Mars film, notable not just because it brought a show back from oblivion, but because it was literally done by fans, via a Kickstarter campaign.

It’s easy enough to quibble over the differences between reboots, revivals, sequels, and franchise continuations – where exactly does Doctor Who fall, for example – but I’m specifically interested in the swathe of shows that we’ll see in the next year or two, most with the original casts, most following on from where we left our characters before. Friends, Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks, Full House, and a new Star Trek (aside from the one in cinemas); I can already hear those critics moaning about how we’re stuck a morass of cheap and easy nostalgia.

Let’s be real here – most of the time, the sequel is worse than the original. And there are fundamental questions at work about narrative: whether shows with structural arcs and some semblance of closure should be resurrected from the dead (never mind that many shows end for other reasons, creative differences or squabbles over salary or flagging viewing figures).

I personally occupy a place that might seem paradoxical to people who don’t write or read fanfiction: I love my characters so much that I never, ever want them back in any “official” capacity beyond the initial text – I’m too busy doing unofficial (and, to me, much more interesting) things with them.

But like it or not, our characters are coming back. This always seems to stress people out who don’t get attached to things: revivals are prime targets for accusations of “fan service”. The term originated in anime and manga, where it often meant inserting gratuitous sexy bits into the story to, well, service the fan.

But in recent years it’s morphed into the suggestion that elements of a show or film are meant for the hardcore fan alone: complicated plots, winking in-jokes, meta- and intertextuality are all recipients of the accusation. Revivals are built on intertextuality; it’s rare that a cast and writing team will reunite and not work to build from where they left off.

The age of revivals owes a lot to rapidly changing television formats, viewing habits, and funding models – David Duchovny explicitly said the that they agreed to make this X-Files series because they were only locked into six episodes, after all. But it also owes a lot to the ever-increasing exposure of fans, whether they’re actively campaigning for a show’s resurrection or just very visibly continuing to flip out over and scrutinise and dissect and love a show that’s been off the air for nearly 15 years. I can’t help but think that when people complain about reboots and revivals, they sense that people stay loyal to a show, or to its characters, out of some sort of slavish inertia, which has no connection to what actually happens in fandom.

All of this isn’t to say that fans are looking for revivals that peddle nostalgia alone. In a review of the first three episodes of the new X-Files, the Guardian expressed its frustration:

The best reboots need to make a case for their very existence, otherwise it’s just the members of Fleetwood Mac getting together to play Rhiannon for the millionth time as we clap along and remember the good old days. New episodes should create something new, should take a series to a different place or comment on their legacy rather than just muddling around in the past hoping it’s enough for some good ratings.

Fans – who are rarely satisfied, and always ask for more from their media – want to push the story along, too. (The fact that they can do this while still enjoying clapping along to Rhiannon for the millionth time might baffle some critics, but what can you do.)

But developing the story may look different to different people: take the complaints (from George Lucas, but also plenty of other guys on the internet) that the new Star Wars just spins its wheels and plays to the crowds’ expectations. And then consider how the film, with its pair of leads being a woman and a black man, both wielding a lightsaber, arguably breaks more new ground than any series of plot twists every could. And if the audience enjoyed itself along the way, seeing something new while still revelling in the old things it loved, even better. Fans, serviced.

That’s not to say that the new X-Files is necessarily progressively forging into the future. (In fact, it’s come under fire for getting a bit stuck in the past.) But the television landscape is broad and varied enough that TV no longer has to mean one thing: we’re seeing the earliest hints of the long tail of the internet reflected back on our screens.

“Reviews in the US also indicate that the series vastly improves,” The Telegraph wrote in its review of the first episode. “But on this form, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most loyal X-philes still believing.”

I understand that shows like to have broad critical or audience appeal. I’m just not sure there’s anything wrong with a show having deep fannish appeal instead. (And by the way, from what I gather from seemingly devastated fan friends and critics alike, the show does get much better. Like, they’re devastated by their emotions, not the quality of the writing.)

If this is the first year of the great wave of revivals – potentially a new format for media storytelling, fueled by fannish devotion – then I can think of no better show than The X-Files to lead the charge.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.