Words not pictures

“I went to the Mass Observation exhibition.”
“Was the copywriting better than the photography?”
“Y… yeah, actually. How did you guess?”

This Is Your Photo is fine. It’s a neat overview of MO, leaning heavily on the Observation aspect. Much is made of the hidden camera and the sneaky shot. But it falls terribly short on the Mass part.

Mass Observation had scale. It wasn’t always successful at it, but in terms of coverage it did alright. This exhibition shows such a limited selection of the archive that every shot feels closer to portraiture. On those terms most of the photography, even many of Humphrey Spender’s beautiful shots, are much weaker than the scribbled entries of the wider MO community.


This photo, for example, poses fewer questions and offers much less tension between subject/photographer/viewer than this passage:

MO in Blackpool

The thing is, accounts like these don’t work at scale. Not now. The oral/written culture of MO is too massive to absorb, it’s just words and numbers. As portraits they’re incredible, but as a body it’s too damn much.

But the photographs? My god, a wall filled with these would paint such a vivid picture of a time that no-one would come out with the same story. As it is I felt like I was on rails, a narrow selection confirming an interpretation of a collection. I couldn’t explore it. You get flashes of it in the second room and the newer projects, but it’s just as haphazard.

(That said, seeing the reference to Worktown joined another bunch of the dots in The Red Men together; the fundamental failure of The Great Refusal to acknowledge what it’s actually riffing off, and contemporary technological life’s debt to the ’30s and ’40s)

Finally, it manages to be a little careless. There are typos dotted about all over the place and a few of the selections don’t really tally with what you’re being told. It’s a shame, because just upstairs there’s an incredibly powerful, simple exhibition called Deeds Not Words that’s well worth your time.