Category Archives: 3 People surveys

Project: People Surveys

Daniel Meadows I viewed the video of Meadows talking about his Free Photographic Omnibus project and found it interesting. I also read the “Photographer as Recorder” essay by Guy Lane which I found difficult to follow due to its overly complex academic language and patronising tone. What was interesting was the assertion that “Living Like This” the exhibition and book that resulted from the trip was less well remembered than the free portraits he took which was exhibited in 1997 under the title “National Portraits”.

B&W Portraits as a Documentary Strategy The images available online for the Zed Nelson “Disappearing Britain” and Irving Penn “Small Trades” projects did show a remarkable similarity in photographic style although different in the style of paraphernalia and dress of the subjects.

August Sander’s “People of the 20th Century”

There is only a basic description of Sander’s 7 archetypal categories in the SFMOMA document. To my modern idea, they do seem somewhat arbitrary but perhaps in those times, society’s structures may have been significantly different for them to make sense during that period in German history. On the Tate website I found some of the photographs from the collection and the captions attached to the images don’t always seem to match my idea of who or what type of person is portrayed.  Also on the Tate site, I found an interesting and useful article by Katherine Tubb here:

This article deals with one specific image and gives an insight into the socio-cultural context of Sander’s work. The image is captioned Circus Workers.


It is described in the article as a picture of a white woman taking tea with an Indian man. The depiction of non Caucasian subjects is seen at the time as showing exoticism and permissiveness, highlighting Sander’s liberal values that led to his victimisation by the Nazis. “Disappearing Britain” does not appear to have this classification dilemma being a much smaller body of work, concentrating as it does on specific industries with not even the most basic demarcation of trades within them. 

“In the American East” by Richard Bolton

I have not yet been able to obtain a copy of this article. If I do, I will insert the reflective commentary into by blog later.

Without Bolton’s article I was unable to make much sense of Oestervang’s  pictures, perhaps the meaning will become clear later.

Mass Observation Britain 1930 – 40s

I used this link to the “Worktown” web resource: and found interesting content in Badger 2007 p79 & *Wells 2009 p 93.

Who better to tell us about his working style than Spender himself. Liz Wells included two quotes in *“Photography a Critical Introduction”

My main anxiety, purpose, was to become invisible and to make my equipment invisible, which is one of the reasons I carried around an absolute minimum of equipment……Summing up the relics of feelings toward Mass Observation I think I can remember the main enemy being boredom and tedium and embarrassment. “ (Spender 1978:7)

“I had to be an invisible spy – an impossibility which I didn’t particularly enjoy trying to achieve….. I was somebody from another planet intruding on another way of life…… A constant feature of taking the kind of photograph we’re talking about even when people were unaware that they were actually being photographed – was a feeling that I was exploiting the people I was photographing, even when …..the aim was explicitly to help them. (Spender 1978:16)

The mass observation archive is arranged into twelve themes which cover pretty much all of the day to day activities in Bolton at the time, from street life, industry, leisure, religion, politics, sport and shopping. I think they have been arranged by what Harrisson thought was important in the people’s lives. For example the pub has its own category distinct from leisure. Work and industry are separated. The purpose of the project was straightforward enough, to record the lives of ordinary people, to find a way of properly recording and distributing the collected material, which included not only  photographs, but diaries and observation records of events so diverse as a funeral, election propaganda and a confrontation Spender had with the manager of the Saddle Hotel over the taking of photographs in the hotel bar.

The ethical question about the Mass Observation is tricky to answer from the perspective of history. The public reaction  to Harrisson’s project was predictable enough and Spender was on the receiving end of some hostility even though it may have been sometimes misplaced. In a time when the working man relied on a newspaper, the wireless and the cinema newsreel to understand his place in the world, that world was very narrow and resentment of strangers poking around with cameras and making notes was to be expected. The only real claim for MO is that it was a way of measuring public morale at a difficult time in European history. Although given the academic, class and political background of the men in charge, there could have been more to it.

Farm Security Administration – Research Sources

In addition to earlier research on Walker Evans and a workshop discussion at the Thames Valley study group last year about the Migrant Mother photograph, (In around and afterthoughts on documentary photography, Rosler)   I have used these sources to research the FSA project:

Badger 2007 pp 72, 77, 87, 245. Wells 2009 pp 39, 97. Dyer 2012 pp 4, 19, 29, 131, 214, 305-6.

Exercise: Making Sense of Documentary Photography by James Curtis

The course notes ask the question; “Is there any sense in which the FSA photographers exploited their subjects?”  The FSA’s remit was to record the lives of agricultural workers during the difficult years of the Depression of the 1930s to provide evidence of the need for reform; Roosevelt’s “New deal”. As such the photographers were given detailed briefs of what images to provide. In this sense, the FSA was exploiting the subjects in a positive way in the sense that the evidence would bring forth help for the suffering poor. James Curtis presents two examples which could be interpreted as exploitation. In the first case, the  captions of some of Arthur Rothstein’s pictures at Gee’s Bend Alabama seemed to “illustrate the biases and racist assumptions of the private and government and aid agencies”…. Rothstein having been misinformed of the nature of the occupation of the  plantation by the descendants of former slaves. Without the captions, the pictures tell a different story. In the second example, a picture by Russell Lee; “Christmas dinner in Iowa” four children are eating a meal in a poor shack. Their father is not at the table and the assumption is that their mother is absent which adds to the impact of the image. Another photograph taken at the time shows the mother at the door of the shack. Lee’s recollection many years later was that the family was motherless, clearly not the case. Curtis mentions other examples and also the fact that the FSA photographers also had no opportunity to edit their work and had to submit all pictures from an assignment. It is not clear if the captions supplied were from the photographer or gleaned from the brief he or she was given prior to shooting.