People watching or spying? Mass Observation at The Photographer's Gallery

By Sarah Jackson | 23 August 2013

Exhibition Review:  Mass Observation: This Is Your Photo, The Photographers' Gallery, London, until 29 September 2013.

Colour photographs of a home interior accompanied by handwritten notes on a key chain.
Taken from Your Home, 2006© The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive. Courtesy of the Mass Observation Archive. Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London on behalf of The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive
Perhaps the object that best represents the Mass Observation exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery is Julian Trevelyan’s Suitcase (1937). A warped and discoloured suitcase lies open, bulging with yellowed doilies, torn brown paper, cut up magazines, newspapers and fabric swatches. It’s ordinary, perhaps even boring ephemera and yet if it weren’t for the glass case, I would probably have to restrain myself from rummaging through it all.

I don’t think I’m alone in this curiosity; humans are, let’s face it, a bit nosy. I don’t believe I know a single person who doesn’t enjoy people-watching in a café or airport, or indulging in a bit of workplace gossip. We are endlessly fascinated by one another.

Founded in 1937 with the declaration “We shall collaborate in building up museums of sound, smell, foods, clothes, domestic objects, advertisements, newspapers, etc.,” the Mass Observation project reflects our natural curiosity on a sprawling scale.

Initially the project drew in contributions from known artists, photographers and filmmakers such as photographer Humphrey Jennings and artist Julian Trevelyan. These contributors often chose specific locations to study; for example, photographer Humphrey Spender famously captured working-class life in Bolton.

Other anonymous MO observers from across the UK were given instructions (known as directives) asking for information on particular topics. These could range from conversations overheard in pubs to how people arranged their mantelpieces.

From the mid-1950s, the MO project rather disappointingly became a market research agency but on its re-launch in 1981, it returned the original remit to create a true and unadulterated representation of everyday life.

‘Life writing’ was the order of the day, with participants given directives to write about their own experiences, for example, their town or their home, all described in intimate detail. Often these accounts were accompanied with amateur photographs, drawings, and other images.

It has created an archive that is both wonderfully human and just a touch creepy. Among the photographs of ordinary street scenes and descriptions of observers’ mantelpieces are pages recording “trailing”. These are meticulous notes taken by the observer as they literally trail another random passer-by. One follows a 55 year old woman noting where she is walking, at what time and how fast, where she stops and what she looks at.

Following another person and taking notes? It’s unsettlingly like something out of a spy novel. It gets worse when you realise that during the war the MO worked closely with the government to monitor people’s responses to politics, happiness, as well as their sexual habits and more.

As we share more of our lives online, privacy issues have become more pertinent. It’s generally accepted that we don’t want to have our private lives followed by a bureaucratic entity but simultaneously we follow each other all the time; when sitting at an airport watching the world go by, or gossiping with colleagues, or even following someone on Twitter. Nothing is more interesting than other people.

That’s not to say that we should be comfortable with our government watching us, but it’s hard to deny that the MO archive is fascinating stuff. Even only a few decades later, the notes and photographs taken by contributors and observers open a window on life that has changed dramatically.

From Humphrey Spender’s black and white photos of working-class life in Bolton to John Hinde’s pioneering colour images of Exmoor Village and British Circle Life, life in mid-twentieth century Britain is revealed to be extraordinary – perhaps because of its ordinariness.

  • Open 10am-6pm (8pm Thursday, 11.30am-6pm Sunday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @TPGallery‎.
More pictures:
Handdrawn image of a sitting room coloured with felt pen.
Taken from Housework and Maintenance, 1983.© The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive Courtesy of the Mass Observation Archive Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London on behalf of The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive
Colour photograph of a woman sitting in a garden in full bloom with handwritten notes at the bottom.
Taken from You and Gardens, 2007.© The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive Courtesy of the Mass Observation Archive Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London on behalf of The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive

Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.
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