Saturday, 19 July 2014

Humphrey Spender – Worktown

I think I was vaguely aware of the Mass Observation project of which Spender’s Worktown (Bolton Council, 2014) photos form a part before this course, but it’s certainly not something I’ve ever explored. The overall project is neatly summarised in a rather poorly referenced Wikipedia article (Wikipedia Contributors, 2013) as aiming “to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers” and critically discussed in some detail in the New Yorker reference linked here.(Crain, 2006)
Spender sought to be, according to a BJP profile from 2000 (Barron, 2000), an “unobserved observer” and if we compare his work with, for example, the FSA work of Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange (Library of Congress, 2012), we can see that he has been quite successful in this, probably as a result of depending on an unobtrusive Contax II rather than the massive cameras used by Evans/Lange.
Whether he has succeeded in recording everyday life is rather more difficult to determine. I’m no social anthropologist, but a review of the photos on display at the Bolton Worktown website do seem to suggest a very limited distribution of class in his images.  It would be relatively easy to jump to the conclusion that his view of Bolton is coloured by his social background – and that is a major criticism of the whole MO project.However in many of his street photos there are very few people of any class. There are very few destitute people in his images to support a charge of social voyeurism and just as few upper middle classes in view to suggest any attempt at “them and us” type contrast.  So against that the photos have none of the campaigning feel of Lewis Hine before him or say, Nick Danziger after. On this basis I think he has at least partially succeeded in conveying a sense of neutral observation. Even if the images lack the breadth of Brandt’s vision (The Bill Brandt Archive, n.d.) – he has left us with a valuable archive of images from a part of Britain that would otherwise have stayed pretty well hidden from history.
Barron, J., 2000. 90 and Counting. British Journal of Photography, 19 April.pp. 12-13.
Bolton Council, 2014. Bolton Worktown. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2014].
Crain, C., 2006. Surveillance Society. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2014].
Library of Congress, 2012. Farm Security Administration. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2014].
The Bill Brandt Archive, n.d. Social England. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2014].
Wikipedia Contributors, 2013. Mass-Observation. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 19 July 2014].

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