Mass Observation Archive

Humphrey Spencer

Thanks to those who have blogged so far! Interesting and fruitful reflections! Mark’s comments on the small/large community (small World/large community of images: could we say the opposite?) made me consider some uncomfortable questions.  To what extent are we tourists in somebody else’s misery?  Or, more sinister: do the images of the little girl photographed make ‘Maddy’ function as a celebrity?  It creates a queasy relation between the ‘taken’ of photography and her own taking.  This sense of the movement of a tale, and the movement of what we might call the “real” is expressed in Anthony’s post as well.  Both sets of photographs dynamize expectancy, despite being of very different genres.  What adds movement to the selection for me, and maybe for some other viewers, is the appearance of a triangle of light, from the slightest (you can tell in that the image remains precise – a tripod?) movement of the photographer opening the lens to the clear sky.  We know that the “dust has settled”, the result has been had, the light has been frozen: the movement is our propulsion to return, to go back again, once more, and see.  It could, then, be a question of a kind of history.

One thing these photographs reminded me of was a chance occurrence, while I was in Texas a few weeks ago, of opening a book (Ben Highmore’s Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, highly recommended!) to a photograph of my home town.  There I am, waiting to give a little lecture on Surrealism and Paris, and the first thing I do is see a photograph of Bolton ‘taken’ (to me?) from the 1950s.  Of course, this maybe means nothing; and maybe we should refuse it access to categories of critique.  I have no great affinity with Bolton; particularly when I go there – but I find certain places, and modes of its coming to me, affect me greatly.  The Mass Observation project was founded in 1937 in an attempt to allow more ameliorative portrayals of poorer areas of the country: particularly the north.  It produced a vast archive of ephemera.  One of the more talented photographers, Humphrey Spencer, worked in Bolton and has recently been the feature of an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, in London.  At this link there is a short interview with the curator which is well worth watching.  If you want to see ‘things’ from the project (the project had various ethnographic elements, from drawing to various forms of narrative), you can visit its newly digitised archive:

Anyway, the desire to return to a place is usually called nostalgia: a kind of impossible suffering (which itself was recognised as a disease at the beginning of the 19th C. – cured by leaches[1]) for a departed homeland.  But these are not Boltonian dreams, but reckonings of the camera; what photography’s early practitioners referred to as its magic.  A certain pull of particular images draws us back into pasts which were never a ‘part’ of.  And so, I quite like the scrawled images of graffiti by a hand which does not quite have writing’s parameters in check; not for what is drawn (humorous too); but for the grain of the letters made against the wall.

[1] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia.


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