Humphrey Spender – Worktown

Humphrey Spender’s style is very unobtrusive; he wants to capture life as it is, with as little awareness of being photographed as possible. His photographs of buildings are at first glance reminiscent of Bill Brandt’s images of Halifax from around the same time. Closer examination shows Spender has a much more prosaic view than Brandt’s; he shows the environment as much as possible as it actually was, without the influence of German Expressionism that was often a feature of Brandt’s work.

In keeping with the aims of Mass Observation his unobtrusive style – very few photographs demonstrate an awareness of the camera by the subject – he created an engaging mix of dispassionate observation with an empathic feel for his subjects. Although he himself was from a very different background to those he photographed, particularly in Bolton, his photographs are not at all judgemental. He depicts ordinary life – leisure and work – as something worth recording even if he was an outsider.

Jim Barron in his BJP article likens Spender’s work to that of Jacob Riis in New York. It does seem to me to be a slightly unfair comparison; Riis has been criticized for his treatment of subject almost as props for his campaigning photography, whereas Spender shows a much greater feel for his subjects as equals. This is very much in keeping with the objectives of Mass Observation but it is hard to believe he would have photographed any other way.

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