Photo History: Mass Observation, May 12th, and Humphrey Spender

It occurred to me last week that since today is May 12th, which is Mass Observation day, I should probably coincide it with another issue. Fortunately, for the sake of this blog’s integrity, Mass Observation can be partially viewed through its contact with photography, and one photographer in particular: Humphrey Spender. This is mostly research I gathered through a little project for the Mass Observation Archive up at The Keep. 

Mass Observation

Mass Observation was started by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings with an aim to examine and document the lives of the working class. Humphrey Spender, the focus of this issue, was invited by Tom Harrisson to go to Bolton in 1937 as part of the Worktown project, and Blackpool too, which was established to record the daily lives of those in a Northern industrial town. The significance of today’s date, May 12th, refers to the same day in 1937: the occasion of the King’s coronation. The concept was to have people write down and send in what they’d done on that specific day. Since the M-O brief was revived in the 1980s, people continue to contribute to the Archive each year on this day.

A photograph of the book about the project that preceded Mass Observation.
Something to consider reading alongside Spender’s Worktown People

Spender’s Early Days

Although his main interest was painting, Spender’s fascination with cameras was piqued during his youth, when an uncle sent him a box camera from Switzerland. Spender described being fascinated by the “jewel-like appearance of the viewfinder and lens.”[1] But it was Michael, Humphrey’s older brother, who really developed his interest in photography. The young Humphrey was devoted to Michael, who had a deep and enthusiastic interest in photographing steam engines and railways.

Although Humphrey recalled Michael’s impatience and intolerance for failure while developing the glass plates in their attic bathroom, he knew he was a good instructor. He took a lot of photographs in his youth but very much of the ‘tourist’ variety; during a stay in Freiburg, he photographed the pretty picturesque, nothing like the photographs he would produce later for Mass Observation.

Before May 12th, 1937

It’s interesting that Spender, like many Mass Observation recruits, hailed from a privileged background, although both of his parents died before he was sixteen. So he was looked after by his grandmother, rather a traditional lady by all accounts, who sent him off to Germany (where Humphrey’s grandfather hailed) to study language and art history in the fashionable way. It was she who decided that architecture was a more acceptable profession and better for making a living. I mean, no one makes a living from painting.

So he was sent off to the Architectural Association School of Architecture (so many As) and emerged, in 1934, just around when Britain was suffering from the most incredible industrial slump. Since it was nigh-on-impossible to get a placement in an architectural firm the course leaders benevolently removed this specification from the graduation fulfillment.

The Dog and The Lamppost

Spender did find work in a small architectural firm run by a Polish immigrant called Landauer. The post didn’t last long; Spender discovered he was “hardly suited to the job” after a drafting incident involving Spender, his pencil and an exquisitely detailed small dog urinating on a lamppost. [2] The draft was meant to describe the interior of a Berkeley Square abode in gilt furniture and classic architectural reproductions. Essentially everything that Spender detested. Thus, the Hilarious Incident of the Dog and the Lamppost.

It reminded me of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. This obviously isn’t a literary blog, but it’s the most valuable book I’ve ever read. And why smother a house in reiterations of the Parthenon when modern materials like glass and steel and concepts like edges and clarity are available? That bit’s rhetorical. I know the answer.

First Steps as a Photographer

Anyway, the job lasted three days and after Spender left he started a photographic studio in the Strand with his friend, Bill Edminston, and together they took whatever work they could get: Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue. Plus the inevitable advertising photography, which Spender described as “incredibly boring.” [3] Spender produced several relatively hard-hitting, socially-concerned stories before Mass Obs. A close friend, Clemence Paine, was a probation officer who worked in the juvenile courts. She asked Spender to help her publicise the terrible conditions in Stepney, and he responded by taking a series of photographs of the Stepney slums. He photographed a meeting of British Fascists in the Albert Hall for the Left Review magazine, which also asked him to capture the Jarrow Hunger Marches. These stories were far from the slightly fluffy images that he produced in his youth, and that’s absolutely to be expected.

At one point, the job of Lensman for the Daily Mirror popped up and Spender took it. The Lensman had a roving brief as an artistic photographer but it was under the control of the art editor, who took an immediate and immense dislike to Spender, this “posh-speaking upstart” [4]. Ultimately their respective ideas about art clashed far too much for Spender to continue working there; the tipping point was a shoot of Edith Sitwell in a fruit-laden hat. Spender couldn’t do it. The art editor summarily dismissed his views with the following retort:

“Orders is orders. If I tell you to go and photograph your brother in a pool of blood, you will do so.”

H. Rider-Rider to Humphrey Spender [5]

Shortly thereafter he joined Picture Post, and was in the vanguard of photographers to work there. That was a new kind of photography and a new kind of journalism, with more photographs than text to stories which were several pages long. I can do a separate issue on Picture Post and Stefan Lorant.

A photograph I took at The Keep, in reprographics, combing through the Worktown prints by Humphrey Spender.
Top right: Humphrey Spender, Dance Class, 1937

Spender: Mass Observation Photographer

Spender joined Mass Observation in 1937, when he was still working for the Daily Mirror. Tom Harrisson, who started Mass Observation with Charles Madge, knew Humphrey’s brother, Michael, and may have seen Spender’s work in Left Review before inviting him to become involved. In Spender’s own words, there were two main reasons for accepting Harrisson’s invitation; the sense that what Harrisson was proposing would be useful, in some way, because as an anthropologist Harrisson was proposing the study of human behaviour in his own country. Spender considered that knowing more about human behaviour could only contribute to improving the general quality of life that people experienced. But perhaps the overwhelming reason was Harrisson’s magnetic personality.

“There were never any written directives. Once he [Tom Harrisson] had persuaded you to come and live in the scruffy M-O headquarters in 85 Davenport Street, Bolton, there was a daily session which usually took the form of Tom seizing about half a dozen national newspapers, reading the headlines, getting us laughing and interested, and quite on the spur of the moment, impulsively, hitting on a theme that he thought would be productive.”

Humphrey Spender [6]

The way in which Spender describes the work he did for M-O is quite grounded. Their general brief was to produce information about personal behaviours in a multitude of situations: people in church, people in queues, people at fairs, people at markets, people in the street, people in pubs. But Spender wasn’t a lens-for-hire. He set himself the task of exposing truths. And speaking of truths, it must have been ten levels of difficult to merge with the background so that people were unaware of his presence.

An Invisible Spy

We’re all aware of the difference in posed and unposed photographs. When you don’t know you’re being photographed you’re natural, relaxed and uninhibited. Then suddenly you realise the camera is training its lens on you and your smile becomes forced, your head seeks a better angle to elongate your neck and show off your jaw and the organic glaze that would have covered the image before dissolves.

Well, Spender faced a similar issue. For a slightly less-well-organised perfectionist (Spender’s words) [7] he had to balance his camera with a sense of embarrassment and manage to get the right exposure, all the time cognizant of the fact that the posed and unposed photographs differed wildly. It wasn’t the first time Spender had needed to photograph people and make his presence unknown. His Stepney work raised the difference between posed and unposed; the people he photographed had to know that he was there to take photographs of them. So Spender’s solution was to make them so familiar with his presence that he became almost a part of the wallpaper, so to speak. Like Walker Evans or Paul Strand, he used intelligent methods to capture images not altogether openly; he would pretend to be photographing children and suddenly swing his camera around to capture the adults.

A photograph I took at The Keep, in reprographics, combing through the Worktown prints by Humphrey Spender.
Humphrey Spender, Kitchen at Davenport Street, Bolton, the headquarters of Mass-Observation. Tom Harrisson reading paper; left, Walter Hood; right; two unidentified Mass-Observors, 1937

How The Other Half Lived

Spender and the majority of the M-O folk hailed from the middle class but they were there, in the midst of some relatively abject situations, capturing how the other half lived. The concept en gros is not something new; in the 1880s, a Danish immigrant to NYC, Jacob Riis, produced a study (How The Other Half Lives) capturing the unbelievably squalid living conditions of those subsisting in the NYC slums. This is something I’ll review in a subsequent issue. And Spender openly admits to reverting to type, something we’re all guilty of doing (not “guilty” in the sense of a negative connotation just I couldn’t think of a better turn of phrase). He was an intruder in these people’s lives, no matter how you spin it, and he was more than aware of this fact. 

Hesitating, But Not Deviating From The Brief

But something that struck me about Spender is that he was almost painfully empathetic. I think the identification he felt revolved strongly around the emotional connection that links us all through our shared humanity. He didn’t want to take a photograph of someone who’d spilled soup over their lap, or got egg in their moustache. He didn’t want to be complicit in the creation of caricatures, a feeling he’d absorbed during his time working for newspapers and something he’d equally take on to Picture Post. Spender recalled an occasion when he fell into that trap:

“I went to a headmistress’ conference, and took a set of photographs of headmistresses looking like freaks, really. When I brought them back and showed them to Tom Hopkinson, he quite rightly said, ‘There are caricature photographs. These are serious ladies: they may unintentionally look rather comic, but you’ve emphasised the comic aspect, and it really isn’t fair to publish these.'”

Humphrey Spender [8]

The Moral Impulse

Spender didn’t want to embarrass people. He believed that he hesitated too much in his M-O brief because he was so aware of his position and that of his subjects’ and didn’t want to distort the reality that he had been tasked with documenting. The photographs he created in Bolton and Blackpool are testament to his emotional intelligence and profound empathy. Yes, he came from a difference social class, but he was no tourist capturing images for entertainment and social comparison. He trod a careful, almost invisible line as a photographer, hesitating between capturing the typical in fear of his own camera’s ability to lampoon it. He was not simply physically present as an M-O photographer, he was emotionally, morally present. Spender possessed the qualities that ought to be inherent to any documentary photographer and he not only identified it internally, but acted on it. 

“It was a question, really, of recording normal behaviour.”

Humphrey Spender [9]


  • 1. Humphrey Spender, Worktown People: Photographs of People from Northern England, 1937-1938, Falling Wall Press Ltd, 1982, p.11
  • 2. Ibid., p.13
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Ibid., p.14
  • 6. Ibid., p.15
  • 7. Ibid., p.16
  • 8. Ibid., p.17
  • 9. Ibid.

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