Humphrey Spender

Documentary Style Mass Observation Worktown

The goal to observe shines through all photographs. The photographers are standing from a distance, most of the time from a sideline, and photograph with a wide angle camera, which accentuates the distances between subjects even more. There are no signs of interaction between the photographer and subjects. Because most faces are photographed from the side it is hard to read the people’s faces, acknowledge their emotions and therefor establishing some rapport with what is in the photograph.

The photographs are categorized by elements of daily life; life in the streets, work, leisure, national holidays, assuming that the life of these people are centered around these central themes. The focus is on what the people are doing, not even so much on what is happening. Most photographs have a group of people in it, there are hardly any photos with one individual, let alone a photograph in which you can see a person’s emotion.

I do think the work serves the purpose of what the photographers had in mind when they wanted to make an observation of life in Bolton. However, I feel that the basis from which they were working already triggers some questions about their initial assumptions about the working class, as if the working class was a completely different breed that needed specific study and also focusing on it in such a way that the photographers and viewers would never find common ground, recognize themselves in the lives of others and their emotions.

What I miss in the photographs are the elements that show the individuality of a person. The setting in their environment and amongst others leaves no room for focusing on one person in the photo, because of the uniformity in the images, the viewer is immediately drawn back the the central theme of the photograph.

On the other hand, in sharp contrast of Avedon’s work, just as the viewer is kept away from the individual worker, it is also hardly influenced by the inner drives of the photographer himself. We’re forced to look objectively at a scene, therefor don’t get to know the people in the images, nor the photographer himself.

Atherton, L. (2017) Photography and archives from mass-observation. Available at: http://boltonworktown.co.uk/ (Accessed: 17 January 2017).
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