Writing on photography

Review: Mass Observation at The Photographer’s Gallery

The late thirties was a tempestuous time of politico-economic upheaval and looming war. Against this background three men with rather disparate specialties; anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, began Mass Observation (MO), a unique project to record and document everyday life in the British isles. Their idea was to train hundreds of observers and send them out across the country to document and report back on the lifestyles and activities of their compatriots. Mixing literature, photography, drawing, anthropology, psychology and other disciplines, the aim was to create a multi-textual documentary record of Britain.

To do this they recruited around five hundred volunteers who were directed to keep diaries, respond to questionnaires and generally record anything that seemed to be of interest. This was typically done in writing and sometimes drawings, but part of the output of the project was photographic, and ‘an encounter’ with this esoteric archive now forms the basis for a new exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery. Despite the ‘ordinary’ status of many of the observers recruited for the project, the first gallery of this exhibition (which covers MO’s early phase from the 1937 to the mid-sixties) is more or less dedicated to the opposite, observers who marked themselves apart by the fact they were trained, career artists and photographers.

Humphrey Spender is a good example of this. During his time with MO he photographed extensively in Bolton (a key location for the project, known simply as ‘Worktown’) and even followed the inhabitants of the town to Liverpool in order to document their holidays. Spender’s photographs are precise and beautiful, often straddling a line between pure documentary and something more, as in a photograph (shown below) of sheets blowing in the wind behind houses. The sophisticated work of Spender and his fellow trained photographers (like Julian Trevelyn and John Hinde) lends Mass Observation a very superficial similarity to the massive photographic project undertaken by the Farm Security Administration around the same time in the United States.

As many of the observers noted their motives were often under suspicion and Spender recounts trying to hide his camera and his upper middle class accent while photographing in Bolton for fear of revealing himself as an outsider. The onset of war soon after the start of the project made this situation more difficult still, with legal restrictions on photography and a general culture of suspicion, embodied in anti-espionage mottos like ‘photograph scenes not soldiers, friends not forces’. Period literature included in the exhibition includes examples of the rather inoffensive (dull) photography many were diverted towards instead, and explores how MO realigned itself with the war effort, undertaking research into subjects like morale, and rather bizarrely the preferred pin ups of servicemen.

The post-war period saw Britain coming to terms with a radically new era, as embodied in the rather uncertainly titled Britain Can Make It exhibition, a few photographs of which are again included in the exhibition. Also on show are John Hilde’s rather beautiful if idealised colour photographs of an Exmoor village. As Britain changed in this new era so too did Mass Observation, and when the original founders departed soon after the war the project gradually reinvented itself as a private market research company. In 1981 Mass Observation was again revived as an anthropological exercise, and the second gallery in this exhibition covers it’s continuation from that date until the present.

This second gallery is largely focused on vernacular photographic responses to specific directives, for example 1995’s ‘Images of where you live’. The submissions are quite touching, with photographs, text and some meticulous hand drawn diagrams that echo the similarly naïve but obsessively detailed drawings of the original MO observers. Another nice directive was the 2012 ‘Photography and you’ with responses that are variously familiar, moving, strange; from Hurley’s ghostly photograph of the ice trapped Endurance to an anonymous family snapshot as emblematic of photography’s mnemonic power. In all Mass Observation is a vast, diverse and interesting show, the contents of which I’m afraid I’ve only managed to rather vaguely summarise here. Pay it a visit and see for yourself before it closes on 29th September 2013.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


  • Thank you for this useful reminder. Spender’s talk at the NPG a decade ago is still burnt on my brain… one of the best lectures I ever attended.

Writing on photography