‘My bowels work regular as clockwork,’ says a Bolton resident in an article about beer drinking published by Mass Observation, the social documentary project founded in the late 1930s by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet and journalist Charles Madge and painter and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Thankfully, this particular Boltonian nugget was not illustrated, at least not by the photographer Humphrey Spender, who in 1937 at the behest of Mass Observation set off from London to snap the locals of Bolton and Blackpool, concealing his posh accent along with his camera. Spender, it’s said, was encouraged by Mass Observation to poke his Leica into Northern lavatories, but what he gives us instead are beautifully atmospheric shots of teeming markets, billowing washing lines and Lowry-esque streets, all covertly taken. His ‘field worker’ colleagues had less artful intentions, eavesdropping, sometimes even resorting to stalking in order to note down details of everyday British life.
If that sounds creepy, it’s worth remembering that Mass Observation wasn’t just posh boys spying on the proles. Responding to national advertisements, hundreds of willing participants of all social backgrounds (though often cross, curtain-twitching types) filled in questionnaires about their day-to-day lives. Like West Kirby resident Arnold Draper, whose 1930s ‘February Report’ contains his opinions on ‘Valentines’, ‘Music Halls’ and, oh dear, ‘The Jewish Problem’.
The overall aim of the project was left-leaning and well intentioned – to provide an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ that challenged stereotypes of ordinary Britons perpetuated by the press and government. But, with the outbreak of war, the use of cameras was restricted, and by the 1950s Mass Observation had sunk without trace. By the time it was relaunched in the 1980s, the Mass Observation Project, as it became known, had lost a lot of its urgency.
In an age of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, when the contents of minds (and sometime bowels) are divulged in an instant while we cling ever more tenuously to our privacy, this show offers much to ponder about issues of sharing and surveillance. This is a highly edited selection from the archives but there’s still hours of material to pore over – books, pamphlets and films along with photographs ranging from the highly sophisticated to the endearingly amateur. While Spender’s photos of Bolton and Blackpool deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Walker Evans’s classic Depression-era shots taken on the other side of the Atlantic, few other snaps in the show would win any prizes.
Technical finesse isn’t really the point here. In fact, the most ordinary images, of front drives and back yards, are often the most memorable. We all have our own photos – their focus dodgy, colours a bit off – of Dad in a tank top washing the car, or Granny enjoying a cuppa in the garden, and seeing their like triggers countless memories. This may be a show about a slightly sinister-sounding archive but you’ll leave full of nostalgia – and maybe even with a tear in your eye.