Humphrey Spender's London Photographs at Firstsite Colchester

By Culture24 Reporter | 20 March 2013

Humphrey Spender: London Photographs, Firstsite, Colchester, until May 12 2013

A black and white photo of working-class family life in London during the 1930s
Humphrey Spender, Stepney (1934)© Courtesy Humphrey Spender Archive
In centuries to come, pursuers of documentary evidence of 1930s Britain might like to start with the work of Humphrey Spender.

Working for the Daily Mirror for three years from 1934, Spender was one of the first domestic photographers to put a 35mm camera to observational use, portraying the social and economic conditions of industrial cities – notably Newcastle, from where his image for the Left Review is of 2,000 Jarrow Hunger Marchers, converging from across the country to push for jobs and relief from extreme poverty.

Having helped the famous Mass Observation research effort, his service as a War Office Photographer and photo-interpreter for the Theatre Intelligence Service seemed a natural role during the conflict period. After that, he turned to painting, wallpaper and textile design, including a 22-year spell as a textile design tutor at the Royal College of Art.

This exhibition is a flourish of his street, pub and family shots among the working classes of Stepney, Whitechapel and London during the mid to late 1930s. It features photos of sufficient social veracity to be deemed courtroom evidence in adjudications over the sociology of probation officers, linking juvenile crime to economic depravation.

These are down-to-earth photos as well as important social studies. And there’s a local twist: Spender lived and worked in a purpose-built Essex house and studio between 1968 and his death eight years ago.

  • Open 10am-5pm (closed Monday except Bank Holidays). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @firstsite.

More pictures:

A black and white photo of a messy room in the 1930s including a bed and cupboard
Stepney (1934)© Courtesy Humphrey Spender Archive
A black and white photo of two men playing cards on a street bench during the 1930s
Whitechapel (October 1938)© Courtesy Hulton Getty
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