This is Your Photo
2 Aug - 29 Sept 2013
Humphrey Spender, Graffiti (This is Your Photo), 1937/38 © Bolton Council, from the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services, Courtesy of the Humphrey Spender archive
Humphrey Spender, Parliamentary by-election 1937/38 © Bolton Council, from the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services, courtesy of the Humphrey Spender Archive
Michael Wickham, From Britain Revisited, 1960, Courtesy of the Mass Observation Archive
Michael Wickham, Britain Can Make It, 1946 © Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, Courtesy of the Mass Observation Archive
19 June 2013
The Photographers’ Gallery presents Mass Observation: This is Your Photo, the first exhibition to focus solely on the Archive’s visual legacy.
Founded in 1937, Mass Observation began as a radical experiment in social science and is considered to be one of the most intriguing surveys of its kind in the 20th century. It was formed by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, journalist and poet Charles Madge and Surrealist painter and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. The organisation in its original guise aspired to gain insight into the lives, opinions and daily thoughts and habits of the British people. The objective was to counter what the group perceived to be the inaccurate representation of the nation as set out by the media and politicians.
The founders hoped that the information gathered would lead to a deeper understanding of everyday life and create a more democratic and unified society. A national panel, consisting of trained fieldworkers and amateur observers, was assigned topics for study. Themes ranged from pub culture, to the effects of air raids, shopping habits and thoughts on happiness. Following the end of the War, the organisation began to move away from social concerns towards commercial market research until its cessation in the mid-50s. In 1981 it was relaunched as The Mass Observation Project pursuing similar concerns of the formative years with greater emphasis on individual voices and personal histories. The Project continues to this day.
The first part of This is Your Photo will present material from 1937 - 48. This will include Humphrey Spender’s photographs in Bolton as well as his pictures of the Blackpool illuminations; Michael Wickham’s photographs of crowds queuing for the V&A’s industrial and product design exhibition - Britain Can Make It (1946); photographs of Mass Observations experiments in art appreciation involving local miners in County Durham known as the Ashington Group (1938); John Hinde’s photographs from Exmoor Village (1947), a book produced to stimulate foreign commercial interests in Britain by celebrating rural English village life. Graphic responses to the work of Mass Observation in the form of caricatures, drawings and isotypes will also be on display.
A collage work and photographs by Julian Trevelyan will also be featured. These will be shown alongside the artist’s signature Collage Suitcase, a self-contained, portable studio which always accompanied his travels throughout Bolton. Additional Mass Observation ephemera will be presented in a number of vitrines. These will include leaflets outlining what photographs one could take during war- time; a collection of reports by volunteer observers accompanied by portrait photographs, in which the writer offered a narrative of his or her life; and responses from soldiers picking their favourite pin-up girl.
Alongside This is Your Photo the Gallery’s digital programme will give the public the opportunity to respond to and participate in a series of Gallery directives. Public responses will be exhibited on the Gallery's Wall from 27 August to 9 October 2013. Also coinciding with the exhibition is a series of talks and events featuring panel discussions and a one day symposium further engaging with the Mass Observation Project and documentary photography. The exhibition is curated by Russell Roberts, Reader in Photography, European Centre for Photographic Research, University of South Wales.
Russell Roberts said: The Mass Observation Archive marks a fascinating historical project but still remains an important living resource. Its photographic contents offer ways to consider the development of new forms of realism in Britain to study everyday life in parallel with its extensive written element. What people do to their pictures, how they narrate them, socialise through them and what they choose to photograph and why, provides us with an account that is pictorially as well as emotionally compelling. Arguably, as a resource, Mass Observation offers an insight into peoples’ lives as sensitive and politically revealing as the most distinguished documentary or art practice.
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