The recording of daily life is nothing unfamiliar in this age of social media, but there is something extraordinarily poignant in observing the everyday lives of people going about their business and leisure from the 1930s and 40s, until the 80s. This is what you will find upon visiting the Mass Observation: This is Your Photo exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery.
The exhibition draws from the Mass Observation Archives, and includes photographs, artwork, journals and books, many of which were prepared by volunteer ‘observers’ under the directives of Mass Observation. This ‘social research organisation’, was founded in 1937 by ornithologist Tom Harrison, the poet and journalist Charles Madge, filmmaker and painter Humphrey Jennings, and photographer Humphrey Spender, to observe and document the ‘new reality’ in response to the changes in society, politics and economics leading up to the Second World War, and thereby create a ‘modern anthropology’ of Britain.
After the war, the organisation’s activities waned, as it became increasingly focused on market research, but it resurged again in 1981, with volunteer participants writing life journals and focusing on individual perceptions and experiences.
In some cases, the photographs on display are a glimpse into a vanished mode of life — from the dapper and moustachioed circus ringmaster in his top hat, posing with a circus horse, to a grandfather receiving a rose from his granddaughter in an Exmoor village garden.
The photographs also record the antics of couples and families on holiday at the seaside — which become somewhat sinister as you read that these happy families were stalked by the observers and even had their conversations recorded. Drawings of living rooms from the 1980s by women including a housewife and a children’s book illustrator are also telling.
It’s a snapshot into the life of a vanished Britain, which also reveals humanity in its many different guises. A glimpse into the seemingly mundane and ordinary becomes extraordinary when seen through the snap of a lens.
This is Your Photo continues until 29 September at the Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, W1F 7LW. Admission is free.