London: The Photographer’s Gallery – Mass Observation Exhibition


This might seem another somewhat unlikely blogging choice for me, as I think I’ve established that I’m certainly no art critic (well, I WILL critique art, but not in any educated sense, only because I like to complain), and I don’t exactly frequent galleries, but when I read about a Mass Observation exhibit at the Photographer’s Gallery in The Times, I knew I had to see it.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mass Observation (MO), it was a project conceived in Britain in 1937, whereby its members walked the fine line between observing and spying on ordinary people in order to create a profile of quotidian British life.  They used written reports, surveys, and, most importantly for our purposes, photography, to build a picture of the average British citizen.  The project carried on through the war, even though the observers were at some risk of being considered actual spies, and I would imagine that the resulting records are pretty much a dream come true for social historians studying the 20th century.  I only wish something this comprehensive was around centuries ago, though I suppose having to sift through Pepys and Boswell for glimpses of routine existence isn’t the worst thing that could happen.  But even though I’m not a scholar of modern history, I find MO fascinating, and I wanted to learn more.

The Photographer’s Gallery is on Ramilles Street, which is a side street coming off Oxford Street that I’d never noticed before (probably usually too busy gazing into shop windows at things I can’t afford).  The gallery is perched right on the corner, and you kind of can’t miss it.  After confirming with the man at the front desk that entry was free, I bounded up several flights of stairs to check out the exhibition.  (They do have a lift, but I don’t like to take them unless it’s more than 3 or 4 floors up, or I’m with other people, because I feel like I could use the extra exercise.  As my mother would probably say, my legs aren’t broke.)

The full title of the exhibition is “Mass Observation: This is Your Photo,” but it consisted not only of photographs, but of written reports, and some newspaper clippings and magazine articles as well.  Most of the photographs were taken of working class people in Bolton and Blackpool, by Humphrey Spender, but there were a few other themed collections from the revivals of MO in the ’60s and ’80s, including panoramas of circus life and personal objects.  Because I am, at heart, attracted far more to words than pictures, I especially enjoyed the supplemental material, even taking the trouble to squint over the hand-written field reports.  I liked that the observations of strangers were so detailed as to include a description of a woman scratching her right buttock with her right hand (which she had to move shopping to the opposite hand to achieve), though it did make me a little concerned that a modern observer had ended up walking behind me at some point!  There was also an enthralling magazine article on war-time pin-ups, where soldiers were given ten different nudie shots to look at, and rate them in order of preference, and a few of the original response sheets were included in the case.  Their top choice was for a wholesome looking naked young lady scaling a rock, in case you were interested.

In the 1980s, MO changed into a project focused on self-reflection, rather than observing others, and the gallery a few floors above contained more written reports from participants, this time of their homes, and the history of their interest in photography.  Again, I took the time to read through most of the reports, and learned about wedding gifts in the 1950s, and the trials of living with a ferret, amongst other things. There was yet another gallery upstairs, which held a Mark Neville exhibition on the town of Corby, where 16 children were born with birth defects as a result of improper waste disposal by the local steel companies, which was interesting, but not really what I’d come for.

Now, I’ve read some scathing reviews of the MO exhibit, most notably in the Metro, where they described the photography as “terrible,” and stated that they couldn’t see the point of the exhibit.  I strongly disagree with that assessment, and I rather think they were missing the point of the whole thing.  Spender was a professional photographer, and as such produced some iconic photographs, and as for the rest of the collection, it was indeed an amateur effort, because it was done by amateurs!   To expect something else from MO is frankly ridiculous, and contrary to the spirit of the project.  Besides, I am a terrible photographer myself, and their photographs were certainly a big step above mine.  (I didn’t even bother photographing the galleries, because I didn’t see the point of producing blurry, crooked photographs of other photos). From a history perspective, this is truly an invaluable archive and if you’re interested in MO, or 20th century social history, I think the exhibit is well worth seeing.  I was inspired to join the modern incarnation of MO myself after visiting, but unfortunately they’re only taking young male volunteers at this time (seems a bit sexist, really, but what can you do?), so I suppose I must have found it inspiring.  4/5


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