As a result of the Abdication Crisis…we realised as never before the sway of superstition in the midst of science. How little we know of our next door neighbour and his habits. Of conditions of life and thought in another class or district our ignorance is complete. The anthropology of ourselves is still only a dream.
Those words are taken from the introductory pamphlet to the Mass Observation project of 1930s Britain, in which the photography of Humphrey Spender was central. It occupies a quiet but substantial place in the history of social documentary, with several important issues worthy of analysis. As it was a sustained candid photography project, Spender was constantly wrestling not only with the problems of being unobserved but the ethics of surreptitious photography without the subject’s knowledge. His intentions were moral, recognising that a large populace was living in squalor and indignity while another social strata was oblivious to it and uncaring, possibly even responsible for it in relation to how society was structured. And yet, Spender later said this:
I believed that I was recording social history, revealing sociological truth. Only later did it dawn on me the editorial policies behind the big town surveys were connected more with circulation and advertising than with serious anthropological research (Spender, Lensman 1987: 21).
Calling the project “Mass Observation” gave it what now seems a grandiose, slightly eccentric, comic-book resonance. The abdication of Edward VIII to marry American Wallis Simpson, then George VI assuming the throne, was not the only change in the architecture of British identity: the pre-war years were a time of social unrest. And reacting to these factors, like a Victorian gentleman planning an expedition to capture and classify butterflies, Mass Observation staff thought they could identify and record the character of British society from small samples – in which the struggling working class featured highly, as an embarrassing part of the population previously ignored. But the inescapable fact was, the project was shaped and funded by the very people arguably responsible for the suffering of the masses. Spender himself had a privileged background and was mocked for his accent by the populace of Bolton. Lord Lever, founder of Unilever, helped finance the project and in 2007 the town of Bolton still enjoys Leverhulme Park which was once part of his private estate, testifying to his massive wealth.
Despite this, Spender’s photography was a notable achievement and not only for its political or humanitarian value. The 1930s were a time when the ideas of surrealism were novel and interesting for artists and thinkers, and anthropologist Tom Harrison who was partly responsible for MO noted that “what people say is only one part – sometimes a not very important part – of the whole pattern of their thought and behaviour” (The Pub and the People 1987: xvii). Surrealism is based on notions of the unconscious and how it gets expressed indirectly and unexpectedly, and surrealist art attempts to access and account for it. Photography, Susan Sontag said, is inherently surreal i.e. its semantic value is peculiarly and characteristically ambivalent. Unexpected juxtapositions, moments of hidden emotion unexpectedly expressed in candid portraits, are not the only surreal component to photography but are its most direct expression.
Novelist and critic Geoff Dyer in his book The Ongoing Moment suggests that much of photography is a repeating re-invention of the same visual themes, that get re-circulated across the decades. There are established photographic motifs, that consciously or unconsciously shape subsequent photography. Similarly, we can identify a comparable aesthetic response either across the decades or in different people, as below: surreal photographs from both Cartier-Bresson and Spender:
In some respects Spender’s photography was comparable to the work of Cartier-Bresson, as he pursued the ‘decisive moment’ in a similar manner though with a slightly different understanding. He noticed and identified moments of charged meaning born of unspoken feelings, expressed through gesture, body language, and visual geometries. Like Cartier-Bresson, he depicted not only a physical place but also a psychological space: Stephen Shore in his book The Nature Of Photographs calls this the mental and depictive space, where the latter is physical and visual and the former is immaterial and suggested. The intersection of the two is one way of accounting for Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, and is apparent in successful photography. The grammar and syntax of photography is “devoted to the singular and contingent rather than the universal and stable” (Peter Galassi Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography: 25), but is most powerful when it encapsulates a layer of meaning beyond that. This dialectic, the blending of semantic generality with particular details, applies to all aesthetic criticism: we make sense of a painting or a novel in terms of wider frameworks of meaning and in the case of photography, we do this in relation to its characteristically less mediated information. That is, photography deals directly with the world.
The comparison with Cartier-Bresson is further interesting, in relation to photographic culture and its fashions and possible mystique. Cartier-Bresson is often revered as the inventor of photojournalism, not without reason, and his body of work is one of the most important there is. Though some of Spender’s work is similarly accomplished, and depicts ‘decisive moments’ with equal acuity, it somehow lacks the chic of the Frenchman in both its conceptual basis and visual impression. This is only partly accounted for in subject matter, i.e. Spender’s focus on grimy Northern England, since Cartier-Bresson also depicted the rough life of the street. The idea of mass observation is perhaps more significant in the reason for Spender’s relative obscurity, being a less evocative idea compared to the ‘decisive moment’. One is utilitarian, the other is poetic, like a comparison between Bertrand Russell or Roger Scruton, and Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes. The French are stereotypically regarded as more chic than the British, perhaps not without reason, though this should not occlude the work of Spender.
Below: the famous Cartier-Bresson image beside the river Marne, and a less famous image from Spender:
Much of Spender’s work was unseen and unpublished until the 1970s, though some of it was used in the weekly magazine Picture Post which helped shape British journalism and a new social consciousness incorporating the proletariat plight. He merged individual drama with an emerging and more egalitarian politics of the Auden generation, when the Marxist and Communist parties attracted artists and thinkers. He used instantaneous and ephemeral situations from the street because
The kind of photograph that interests me most is a revelation of human behaviour…the photographers I continue to appreciate and admire most are those concerned with humanity – those who, in disclosing humanity and human behaviour, also disclose part of their own attitude towards humanity and human behaviour (Spender, Worktown People 1982: 21).
What is perhaps surprising about this remark is how perceptively it sums up the ethos of good photographic practice, precisely as relevant today as it was in 1930, and yet that such a remark is not in the canon of photographic culture.