Humphrey Spender

“…the most valid and proper use of a camera is as a means of recording aspects of human behaviour; as time passes, social-documentary photographs gain in interest, whereas the ‘beautiful’ photograph…progressively loses interest, becomes boring.” Humphrey Spender

Children on the corner of Horatio St and Marsh Fold Lane, 1937

Humphrey Spender was a pioneer of the documentary style. Working for many different publications as well as for Mass Observation, Humphrey Spender made many pictures of working-class life that were destined to become important and informative historical documents. He qualified as an architect in 1933 but pursued a career in photography. In 1935 Spender became a photographer for the Daily Mail working under the alias ‘Lensman’.

Spender began working with the Mass Observation team in 1937. He was tasked with observing and capturing candid photographs of people and situations in Bolton. Mass Observation’s method was to observe people objectively, avoiding interaction. Spender would often conceal his camera in his coat in order to make himself invisible to his subjects. To photograph and remain unobserved caused him some anxiety. Spender said that this approach was ‘intrusive’ and he perceived himself as an ‘invisible spy’. Even though, after the Second World War, he turned his interests to painting and textile design, Humphrey Spender’s images of Bolton and it’s people are regarded as one of the most important bodies of work in the development of British documentary photography.