Sometimes its nice to create a post from nothing by just going with the flow and seeing what you end up with.Today I went out with camera in hand and did just that. Jumping in the car I headed out of Chelmsford looking to find somewhere away from traffic and people to unleash my creative instincts with a click of the shutter. Going through Howe Green I ended up in Woodham Mortimer finding an interest subject in the Butts Green ford. Once back in the car I headed for the Danbury Ridge nature reserve but with 4G failing me,I ended up crossing the River Chelmer at Ulting. Having walked past Ulting Church on the far side of the river I thought I’d actually visit the church from the landed side..I was not to be disappointed. All Saints, the village church, has been standing since 1150, with a major restoration taking place in the 1870s. The church was once a place of pilgrimage ranking with Walsingham and other famous shrines.The River Chelmer runs next to the church and through Ulting. Once back home I wondered what else Ulting was famed for,in 2001 there were 134 people living there but apart from a sugar beet factory and the river activity centre there wasn’t much more apart from that is Ulting’s most famous resident.
Humphrey Spender was a Pioneering photographer who chronicled the state of Britain in the 1930s. He died in 2005 but in later years, the photographer and artist, concluded “that 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.”
What Humphrey showed, in the 1930s, with his work for the pioneering research organisation Mass Observation (MO) and for Picture Post – he was one of the weekly’s first photographers when it launched in 1938, was that social documentary, in the hands of an expert, can also become beautiful. His pictures of British towns for Picture Post, and his MO photographs, gathered in Worktown People (1982), shot in Bolton and Blackpool from 1937 to 1938, exemplify the way that Humphrey was responsible for a view, not only of Britain’s north-west but of working-class culture, that rarely featured in the press, and that to which a whole other section of the population was largely oblivious.
His photographic work reflects an ethos, long since abandoned by the popular press, that ordinary people are of interest to ordinary people. The portraits that have become icons are often the ones in which humour and nostalgia are ingredients – the tictac men in their tipped hats at the races, the stout ladies before their tall glass of stout in the pubs – but they are all, surely, a small touch on the times. But Humphrey never practised as an architect. Instead, he opened a photographic studio in The Strand with a fellow AA student, Bill Edmiston. This decision was less a consequence of dissaffection with architecture than linked to the social and political changes of that era.
Like his friend Christopher Isherwood – for whom he provided the orginal jacket of Goodbye To Berlin in 1939 – Humphrey had seen the rise of Nazism at first-hand. He had also observed the subversive cultural movements of New Objectivity and the Bauhaus. Thus it was that in the mid-1930s he was photographing housing conditions in London’s East End, and being commissioned by the Left Review to photograph the Jarrow march and a British Union of Fascists rally at the Albert Hall. In 1935, he became a “lensman” with the Daily Mirror, though he quit the paper over an issue of principle in 1937.
MO’s proposition was “how little we know about our next door neighbour and his habits, how little we know of ourselves”. Humphrey had a phenomenal eye and memory for detail, including such items as “the carefully polished and chromium-plated component parts of a Hoover on the mantel of a pristine front parlour”, or “the textural contrast of whitened paving stones before the houses against the cobbles of the street. How I did enjoy the cobbles!”
Meanwhile, Stefan Lorant, the brilliant, if erratic, Hungarian and former Illustrierte editor, had fled Nazi Germany and was founding Picture Post, and its deputy editor Tom Hopkinson invited Humphrey to join “the family”, for £11 a week.Thus could he dedicate himself to his particular kind of documentary for MO, and photographing in cities like Birmingham, Bristol, Ports- mouth, Newcastle and Glasgow in 1938-39 for Picture Post, with its 1m plus circulation. He recorded “real life” for the ordinary onlooker, in defiance of the idea that social science only operated at an academic level.
The MO photographs took less than three weeks over a two-year period. Humphrey’s ranks of the cloth-capped unemployed – hats, including women’s hatpins, were among his favourite markers of class and style – and women stringing washing across backstreets incorporated the jobless and unpaid into the working class. Children, “roaming unkempt and uncared-for, taking the very great risks of playing out alone”, were summarised by one of his most famous prints – two boys tugging down their ill-fitting shorts to pee into a puddle, set against the belching factory chimneys at dusk.
Nor was it only his subjects that, at times, attracted opprobrium, but also his methods. By concealing his small-format 35mm camera, Humphrey justified his position as “the unobserved observer” and elicited a widely varying response. By such concealment, he believed he had access to that unposed part of the truth revealed by a series of images.He remained with Picture Post into the 1950s, except for the time, from 1941, when he was conscripted as an official war photographer. Like many other photographers, he returned to painting from the 1950s onwards, as well as producing murals, mosaics, wallpapers and textiles. For 20 years, he was a tutor in the Royal College of Art textile department.
In 1955 he abandoned photography for painting and textile design, and taught at the Royal College of Art from 1953 until he retired in 1975. He had in 1968, Spender moved to Maldon, Essex, where he lived at The Studio, Ulting. This was the first built design by architect Richard Rogers. Married three times,Spender’s first wife, Margaret Low, with whom he adopted a son, died in 1945. His second wife, Pauline Wynn, with whom he had a son, died in 2003. He then married the photographer Rachel Hewitt, who was at that point more than fifty years younger. Spender had told his wives before marrying them that he was bisexual, and he had affairs with both men and women throughout his life, including Frederick Ashton and Eslanda Goode Robeson.
Just digging and delving and using curiosity can unlock many interesting facts and create something of interest as well as getting readers and local people saying “well I never knew that”. For me I went out looking for something interesting to photo I found what I was looking for and took some wonderful scenic shots but at the same time found out about a photography predecessor on who I now admire. As a tribute to him I’m posting the shots I took today in Spender monochrome style.
*Mass-Observation was a United Kingdom social research organisation founded in 1937. Their work ended in the mid-1960s but was revived in 1981. The Archive is housed at the University of Sussex.Mass-Observation aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires (known as directives). They also paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events.