Exhibition Review – Mass Observation: This is your Photo

Mass Observation: This is your Photo (until 29 September)
Photographers’ Gallery

I enter the gallery’s second floor, where the show starts, thinking that this might take quite a while to see. It is an archive, so I expect lots of materials.

The start of Mass Observation: This is your Photo deals with public life and includes many possible and impossible photographs. Expect to see industrial design items, such as shoes, glasses, radios, and people in all sorts of formations. People in public life, that is, as the home seems not to have been given any room here. Life at the beach and at a farm, people queuing, at the hairdressers, in a pub. There are street views, shop signs, Christmas decorations, babies and animals.

John Hinde takes up much of the space, and his early photographs of life on a farm in the 1940’s using colour film are impressive. Humphrey Spender’s photographs ‘Library Reading Room’ (1938) and ‘Girl with a Bobbin’ (1937) are equally beautiful and very atmospheric. This part of the exhibition is also accompanied by books and newspaper clippings. Until here the show is mainly documentary photography in a traditional sense.

© John Hinde, From British Circus Life, 1948

The Mass Observation (MO) project’s re-launch in 1981 until today takes us up to the 4th floor of The Photographers’ Gallery. The exhibition is divided into sub-projects within the Mass Observation project.
‘One Day for Life’ shows photographs taken on one day, 14 August 1987, of landscapes, seaside and transport. They are printed in post card size and shown on shelves. The selection (from originally 55,000 photos) is interesting – on one shelf a picture of beer jugs on a table is next to a photograph of Stonehenge, which in turn is next to a photograph of a power station at night.

Other sub-projects are interesting too: ‘Your Home: It’s Decorations and Contents’ (2006) are written observations accompanied by amateur snapshots. Some pictures are on the other hand carefully composed. Other people have chosen to draw a detailed picture of the contents of their homes.

© Humphrey Spender, Ashington – Washing in road between terraced housing, 1937-38, Street

What really impresses in this exhibition is how the curator Russell Roberts (Reader in Photography, European Centre for Photographic Research, University of South Wales) has been able to make sense of such a huge archive. How do you decide what to show and how to show photographs from such a big selection? In the end, yes I did need a long time to see Mass Observation: This is your Photo as it is very detailed. Then again I feel rather energised and motivated by the feeling that someone has been able to create something very interesting from the Mass Observation project.

© Taken From You and Gardens, 2007

If you want to take part, you still can until September 26th, in the ‘This is your photo’ flickr project.

Written by Mari Boman, volunteer