Research point : Humphrey Spender

Explore the website Humphrey Spender’s Worktown

Public school educated Spender was the Mass- Observation’s main photographer. Mass-Observation was established in 1937 by Tom Harrison , an anthropologist , the poet Charles Madge , and Humphrey Jennings a film maker. Their ambitious project was to record the everyday life and customs of the British public accurately and unobtrusively . However “the project , although left wing and meaning well , inevitably had the stamp of the Cambridge anthropologist about it ” (Badger, 2007, pg. 78) . As well as photography the survey was to include written material , eavesdroppers were to listen into conversations and make notes.

Between 1937 and 1940 Spender recorded life in industrial Bolton using a small Leica camera , a body of work which became known as Worktown . Spender admitted “he was both shy and nervous about approaching his subjects , yet somewhat guilty about taking candid pictures” (Badger, 2008, pg. 78) . Previously employed by The Mirror he held strong views about exploitation “when he was asked to exploit Edith Sitwells’ eccentricity he refused as he objected to personal caricature” (BJP ,19.4.00) . The majority of the images I looked at on the website seem to indicate Spender kept an objective distance from his subjects and for the most part the subjects seem unaware of being observed. However Spender “recalled that he experienced unambiguously negative reactions from people who objected to being photographed…………He was uncomfortable with these strong reactions , confirmation of his own sense that he was intruding upon people’s privacy and eventually decided to give up social-documentary photography” (Badger, 2007, pg. 78) .

The themes explored in Worktown are eclectic , Leisure , Graffiti , Industry , Politics , Shopping , Religion , Ceremonies , Pub , Blackpool , Sport , Street , and Work. Within each themed group there are a diverse range of images that record all aspects of everyday lives . The Leisure theme includes cafe’s , reading rooms , dance halls , parks and playgrounds. The image of an almost empty theatre for a production of Madame Butterfly seems to indicate opera is not something usually associated with the leisure time of the working class !

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Included within the Shopping section an image with the title of Workingman’s Hair Specialist (1937) made me smile .The irony of the ‘specialist’s’ head of wild hair juxtaposed with a banner advertising treatment for alopecia is something Spender must surely have observed too. His observational skills are evident in another image from the Street section entitled 3 Smart Girl’s (1937) . Three small girls , one pushing the other two who are sat in a pram along the pavement , behind them one billboard boldly displays the words — Sabotage— 3 Smart Girls . The images within the Blackpool section frequently have (I feel) an almost surreal quality .

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Spender’s imagery of Bolton captures mores and a time and place practically vanished now. “M-O was an early instance of what is now called citizen journalism” (Warner Marien, 2010, pg. 293) and the photographs have become an important record of working class heritage.

References / Bibliography

Badger , Gerry , ( 2007) . The Genius of Photography How photography has changed our lives , London , UK :Quadrille Publishing

Core resources : BJP-Spender. PDF
Barron, Jim , ( 19/4/2000) 90 and Counting , BJP magazine.

Warner Marien Mary . (2010 ) Photography:A Cultual History Third edition, London UK :Laurence King
Accessed 10/3/2015

3 thoughts on “Research point : Humphrey Spender

  1. Judy Bach Post author

    Its fascinating to think how much has changed in what is a relatively short span of time . My Mum was especially interested in the images on the site of Ashington (Northumberland) as she was brought up around that area.



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