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.

Parliamentary by-election.
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.
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