In 1937 a radical project was started, a task to record the daily life of Britain. Known as the Mass Observation Archive, its aim was to understand and define the economic and political conditions pre World War II, and ultimately create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’. Needless to say, photography played a huge part in the archive and this new exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery displays the fascinating imagery that made the cut.
In its early phase, the archive was led by a field of experts including ornithologist and explorer Tom Harrisson, and journalist and poet Charles Madge. There were also contributions from anthropologists and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, photographer Humphrey Spender and artists William Coldstream and Julian Trevelyan. These key figures worked in various areas of everyday life to collect anecdotal evidence through artistic means. Directives were issued and volunteers from around the country assigned tasks. The material collected covered a fascinating range of interests from what people placed on their mantelpiece, conversations in pubs, up until the present questions of how people felt about the smoking ban.
This exhibition will focus on all photographic aspects of the mammoth task taken on by the archive, which has, as a happy by-product of the social experiment, traced the way photography and its uses has evolved in society. Since we are such big fans of photography at TCé, we can’t wait to see the differing ways photographs have been put to work throughout history. This exhibition will show both the amateur and professional uses of photography, but also the function of photographs in our society. We think it’ll be an eye-opener. (Words: Laura Thornley)
On until September 29th. For more info visit: www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk/mass-observation-2