From Mass Observation to YouTube in 75 years: the story not just of technological advance but of the shift from an era when people never considered details of their everyday life worth recording to an age when existence has become image, every experience a prelude to its virtual after-life.
Which of these psychological realities is more bizarre? Mass Observation, a radical experiment in social science, was started in the UK in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, journalist and poet Charles Madge and surrealist painter Humphrey Jennings. It must have seemed surreal at the time: a quest, spurred by clichéd media and political reactions to Edward VIII’s abdication, to discover the real opinions, thoughts and daily habits of the British people, by simply asking them and recording what they said.
Over the next decade, fieldworkers, amateur observers and photographers and painters joined the project. The Photographers’ Gallery show is the first exhibition to focus solely on the Mass Observation archives’ visual legacy – a riveting panorama of Britain between 1937 and 1948. Humphrey Spender’s black-and-white photographs of the city of Bolton at work and play– in factories and at football matches, in the pub and coming out of church – and of the seaside illuminations at Blackpool are a highlight. There are photographs of graffiti, which Mass Observation organisers considered an art form; of miners in County Durham sampling Mass Observation art appreciation groups and soldiers choosing their favourite pin-up girl; John Hinde’s celebration of rural life “Exmoor Village”, produced to encourage foreign commercial interest; Michael Wickham’s photographs of crowds at the V&A’s industrial design exhibition; and collages by painter Julian Trevelyan depicting Bolton’s industrial landscape using fragments of newspaper and magazine clippings and seed catalogues.
Mass Observation was relaunched in 1981– images from surveys such as “Housework and Maintenance” and “Present Giving and Receiving” are featured – at a time when Britain was becoming increasingly divided, and the founders’ utopian, egalitarian, unifying spirit belonged to a lost world.
To September 29, www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk