Photographers' Gallery documents society with photos from Mass Observation Archive

By Mark Sheerin | 20 August 2013

Exhibition preview: Mass Observation: This Is Your Photo, The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until September 29 2013

Black and white photo of children hanging around on a street
Humphrey Spender, Parliamentary by-election – Children hanging around outside (1937/38)© Bolton Council, from the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services Courtesy of the Humphrey Spender Archive
It’s surely brave for a medium-sized gallery take on the Mass Observation Archive. But the rewards should be plain to see. As Thomas Mann once said, “only the exhaustive can be truly interesting”.

Nowadays a vast-ranging academic resource, the MO was originally set up along quite modest lines by a journalist/poet, a painter/filmmaker and just one anthropologist. The year was 1937 and while pub culture and shopping habits were of initial interest, the archive was soon looking at the effects of air raids.

Sadly, MO moved away from its democratic roots and became a de facto market research agency by the mid-1950s. No-one might have missed it had it not relaunched in 1981 with a return to an original remit: to counter what government or media might claim to represent "everyday life".

The current show looks at the years between 1937 and 1948. The grit and the glamour of northern life are well represented by Humphrey Spender, who photographs Bolton residents and Blackpool illuminations. Londoners are represented by Michael Wickham’s gallery-goers queueing for the V&A.

Part two considers the snapshots with which members of the public completed their questionnaires, known to the MO as Directives. If the Gallery offers the chance to immerse yourself in these they will have broken down some barriers to this populist and potentially popular, but still little known, social experiment.

  • Open 10am-6pm (8pm Thursday, 11.30am-6pm Sunday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @TPGallery‎.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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