Social Documentary to Surveillance: Life through a Lens

A central contradiction at the heart of the Mass Observation project’s photographic archive can be identified at its inception.  The idea was essentially democratic, documentary, objective and realist – ‘an anthropology of ourselves’; yet the photographers and artists who began this record were for the most part surrealists, and the project itself followed closely on the heels of London’s International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, with which many were involved.

mass_obsThe exhibition of their work, held at the Photographer’s Gallery, begins with the image it has taken as it’s subtitle: ‘This is Your Photo’.  This was taken by Humphrey Spender, a key figure in the prolific early years of the project from 1937-8, whose pictures both introduce and dominate the first half of the show.  Beginning with a monochrome triptych of graffiti images foregrounds Spencer’s surrealist roots – but also signals how the real and the surreal were less conceptually antagonistic than one might suppose.  Indeed, it was the investigation of the subconscious manifested in everyday life that the surrealists aimed to depict, as well as creation of beauty and meaning out of ‘found objects’; thus they considered graffiti as an art form – a sort of automatic drawing par excellence, unconsidered, untaught, revealing the immediate  impulses and instincts of the creator.  Spender’s image, though intended as simple documentary evidence, takes on far more significance when one considers it in a wider artistic context; in relationship with Brassai’s graffiti photographs, for example, or with Cubism’s collage techniques which integrated everyday materials and fragments of text into their art, or with Max Ernst’s use of ‘frottage’ (rubbing), ‘grattage’ (the opposite – scraping off paint to reveal the shapes underneath) and decalcomania to create fantasy landscapes from natural sources.  Ernst was following in the illustrious footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci, who famously perceived the inspirational power of stains on the wall, in which an astute mind could detect unknown worlds and universes.  Spender might be considered within this tradition, allowing a privileged voice to the ‘markings on the walls’ in Bolton.

_10__Press_Image_l_Mass_Observation_l_This_is_Your_Photo_l_Humphrey_Spender__Open_market__Shoppers__1937_38_51ffa31b6fa5eIt was on Bolton that the Mass Observation photographers initially focused their efforts, recording the life of the working classes there; then they followed their subjects on holiday to Blackpool and recorded them at leisure.  Observers, meanwhile, gathered statistics on every aspect of British behaviour – and listening in to conversations in pubs was often the best (and most enjoyable) means of guaging the working man’s mindset.  Accompanying Spender’s photograph of a ‘Man with hand up in pub’ (below, 1937/8) is perhaps the best recorded quote: “Why I drink Beer, becuase it is food, drink, and medicine to me, my bowels work regular as clockwork and I think that is the Key to health…”


mass observationSpender felt self-conscious pointing his camera at people going about their day-to-day tasks, as well he might – he recalls the response to Mass Observation as overwhelmingly hostile and suspicious: “We were called spies, pryers, mass-eavesdroppers, nosey parkers, peeping-toms, lopers, snoopers, envelope-steamers, keyhole artists, sex maniacs, sissies and society playboys.” This was a generation unused to sharing their personal activities on the scale we now take for granted in our digital age; few understood why anyone should be interested in the minutiae of their monotonous daily routine, and could only conclude that there must be a more sinister reason for the intrusion.  Spender therefore made efforts to conceal his camera from sight, and the results are all the more revealing, on an athropological level, for their subjects’ ignorance.  The photographs capture a wonderful range of unpremeditated expressions that epitomise the British public at work and at play, their attitudes and interactions.  On a more personal level, display cases reveal some of the many individuals who volunteered to play an active role in Mass Observation, their photos sitting alongside carefully written reports.  Directions to new observers included: 1. Report on Mantlepieces; 2. Report on Yourself; and 3. Day Surveys.

Micheal_Wickham__Britain_Can_Make_It__Crowds__1946___6_51fa9b6526d82In 1946, Mass Observation decided to document the public response to the V&A’s exhibition of modern industrial design, ‘Britain Can Make It’.  While interviewers took a newly direct approach, asking those in the queue of their expectations and thoughts on post-war design, Michael Wickham took a series of pictures which capture the haphazard and awkward nature of the British queue, no-one talking or catching one another’s eye, expressions veiled in boredom or deep in thought, passive and resigned.  Next to these are gathered official photographs of some of the exhibits they were to see: stark, perfectly composed images of sleek, modern domestic appliances that strike an absolute contrast with the messy world of human habit.  One may conclude from this that humanity is ill-suited to modernist ideals; this has certainly been proven on a larger scale as the International-style ‘machine for living in’ stripped its concrete tower block dwellers of their individuality and sense of identity, creating from an architect’s dream of utopia a living dystopia of social discontent.

1375953538320_2-press-image-l-mass-observation-l-this-is-your-photo-l-john-hinde-from-exmoor-village-1947This vision could not be further from the idyllic scenes of English village life that John Hinde created, published as ‘Exmoor Village’ in 1947.  Suddenly England is saturated in colour.  Unlike Spender’s or Wickham’s ‘undercover’ photographs these are highly staged, as if for a picture postcards; in fact they were actively intended to attract foreign visitors with a rose-tinted vision of the English countryside during the difficult post-war years.

Hinde followed this with ‘British Circus Life’ (1948) – after which ensued a short hiatus in his photographic career, during which he joined the circus in question and married a trapeze artist, before returning to found his eponymous postcard business in 1956.

p01dgyz8In 1960 the photographers of Mass Observation launched the project ‘Britain Revisited’, returning to Bolton and Blackpool to record the changes that had taken place in British popular culture over the preceding  twenty years.  In fact, Wickham concluded, it was the ‘unchange’ that was most remarkable; besides superficial modes of dress, it was only an increasing ‘Americanisation’ that distinguished cultural activities in the sixties from the pre-war Blackpool holiday routines.

In terms of data collection, however, the social project petered out in the 1950s and 60s as market research followed in the wake of an increasingly commercialised world.  It was revived in 1981 as a ‘life writing’ project, with the difference that now most people owned a camera, and so could illustrate their own written responses with snapshots.  The camera lens was inverted, and the project consequently of a wholly different order – it was less a mass oberservation of others than a mass autobiography that was underway.  The resulting images are both more intimate and more subjective, less interesting in themselves but working together as a visual collage of a life.  The gallery has chosen to display a selection of snapshots from August 14th 1987, part of a directive entitled ‘One Day For Life’ which aimed to create a ‘visual map of the life of the nation in one day’.  This was organised to mirror a Mass Observation ‘day survey’ carried out in 1937, fifty years on.  It is interesting because the images now look so dated, but bizarre because it is as if someone had discovered a boxful of discarded snapshots – those where the human subject is off-stage, leaving cars on a motorway, telegraph poles in the sunset, a slightly skewed view – and decided to privilege these rejects by placing them carefully behind a perspex screen on a gallery wall.  More recent ‘directives’ become less and less interesting, as the themes become more limited, and the purpose less clear.


Here are a few examples from ‘The Garden and Gardening’ (1998); as a point of comparison for researchers at Sussex University (where the MO archive now resides), these may appear fascinating.  To others it probably looks more like a school project set to keep children occupied during the summer holidays.  Though the Photographer’s Gallery is clearly keen to present Mass Observation as an active, ongoing project, its interest to the general viewer is limited in today’s world of social media.  When everyone’s photos and opinions are readily available to view on the internet 24/7, why revert to dated methods of print?  A better comparison in my view would have been images taken from CCTV cameras – perhaps in Bolton and Blackpool – which would offer a truly objective view of everyday life in 2013.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s