I have managed to visit several exhibitions during the summer, and one which has had particular resonance is the exhibition curated from the Mass Observation Archive, at the Photographer's Gallery.
The Mass Observation was set up in 1937, to record daily life in Britain, and to create in the words of the founders, "an anthropology of ourselves". The Photographer's Gallery describes it as "a radical experiment in social science, art and documentary." In the 1950's and 60's it became less personal, was more under the auspices of government, and more geared towards post-war market research (political and social views, shopping habit etc.). In the 1980's, when it moved to it's current home at Sussex University, the MO became re-vitalised, with more of an emphasis on original, personal testimony around everyday aspects of peoples' own lives.
I have a small personal interest, in that when I worked for a number of years at an adult Literacy Scheme in South London, our students were official Observers. And I recently joined in one of the annual 'diary days', which are open to everyone in Britain (this has been going on for about 3 years). Though it is now only possible to become a regular Observer if you are male, 18-44, and not living in the S.E. (obviously they are short of that demographic, and over-subscribed by others!).
It's interesting how the pictoral content of the MO has changed over the years (writing is still the main part, the ephemera of daily life is also included). Originally taken on by a small number of professional photographers such as Humphrey Spender, film maker Humphrey Jennings and other artists, it is hard to see the film/photo documentary as significantly different from any other of the time. Most often, it was middle-class men, "visiting" working-class communities (e.g. Bolton, or 'Worktown' as Spender called it; he also said he liked to keep his mouth shut so that the inhabitants of Bolton would not be put off by his polished vowels). Men like George Orwell, (who published 'The Road to Wigan Pier the same year the MO was founded, and 'Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933) with good hearts and minds, but undeniably "outsiders" in relation to the communities they were documenting. It must be pointed out, the remit of the MO runs across class, age, and gender, although I do wonder about the ratio of 'Observer' and 'Observed' in terms of class particularly, at least in the earlier years, and post-war period.
As the century moved on, the role of photography, and inevitably the photographer, changed, along with other social and economic changes. It became more democratic, until photography becomes in recent years, as much a part of personal history as writing.
It's interesting to think of the MO alongside the current constant online 'diarying' of our daily lives now. I found myself thinking first, what a wonderful record of social history the MO Archive is, compared with centuries before the twentieth century, and then second, what indeed will be it's significance, considering huge the amount of information, or over-information that is now available online.
However, the MO is different from facebook, twitter, and the rest. It still uses directives, so it not possible simply to photograph what you had for breakfast (unless that happens to be the focus of the directive!). The information will be more nuanced, more organised, more selective, and there will be less of it (numbers of Observers are limited) and it will also be stored archivally for future generations. In contrast, over time, I wonder how many YouTube videos or facebook pages will survive.
The organisers of the exhibition, taking on the spirit of Mass Observation, are asking members of the public to become 'photographic observers' until October. The directives change regularly, but you can contribute to any of them at any time. The subjects are set by well-known figures (inevitably, Martin Parr gets a look-in, but I have to say his subject - funerals - I think has initiated some powerful and extremely moving responses). All photographs are published on an online gallery, either via Guardian Witness or Flickr, and will also become part of "The Wall" (changing digital display) at the Photographer's Gallery in October. I particularly like the way some themes (e.g. 'The Mantlepiece') are being repeated from earlier decades.
One thing about this sets me thinking though. All contributions to the Archive, historically and currently, are made by Observers on the understanding that there will be anonymity for 50 years. Only age and gender are given until that time. The current photographic contributions via the Photographer's Gallery, however, are not anonymous. Yes, I know that this isn't the MO proper, but is it just too much, in our photo mad, egocentric artist-as-self days, to give an image without a name? I guess that would have been just too revolutionary a concept, although it would have been in the spirit of Mass Observation, and would have been quite interesting if only age and gender were given for this too. Admittedly anonymity was not part of the deal where the earlier, mainly pro photographers were concerned, but we have now moved beyond that to a democratic photography-as-personal-testament (see the more recent contributions to the MO in the exhibition). But not, I guess, if you go a step beyond the original and current concept of MO itself, and move away, out towards "The Wall", and into the world of "Photography as Art". The MO and the Photographer's Gallery's interpretation and representation of it and it's legacy are not one and the same of course, and I found this an interesting dissonance between the two.
The exhibition itself is fascinating, and although this is primarily a photography exhibition, words - the primary focus of MO and the Archive - are by no means sidelined, and are an integral part of it.