Alan Kane and Humphrey Spender

Artvehicle 9/Review

11th January 2007 — 17th February 2007

The aptly-named Ancient and Modern have decided to show some photographs in the corridor that leads from the front door to the big desk room at the back. On the left hand wall are 34 colour pictures of the drinking culture of the 90s. As a counterpoint to these are 15 black and white images of Bolton from the 30s.

Humphrey Spender took these pictures as part of Mass Observation, a social research organisation that aimed to produce an 'anthropology of ourselves'. Spender documented his surroundings using a concealed camera and sought to pursue an objective 'truth'. He wrote 'as time passes, social- documentary photographs gain in interest'. From thousands of 'truths' these photos were chosen, their original purpose being, ostensibly, to educate. Some of them are beautiful and timeless - a symmetrical shot of the end of a terrace, devoid of people, is my favourite. The little old men in big flat caps are like a series of pre-clichés and there is some innocent graffiti of faces in chalk on pavements, all in quaint black and white. We learn from one image that it was possible 80 years ago to leave your pint on a Bolton bar without someone nicking it, spiking it or clearing it away.

Alan Kane states his position not as observer but as agitator, stirring things up for the camera. Are these images to be viewed in the same way? Is this too a study of 'the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain'? Here the curator has chosen four of pub toilets, three involving underwear and three about cigarettes. There is a picture of a broken egg, some sick and a bit a power dressing. In one picture some bloke has stuffed his tackle in a wine glass (puppetry of the penis meets David Blane). Well that's my 90s in a nutshell.

It is strange how unnostalgic the 10-year-old pictures are. A lot of these grotty pubs will still have the same wallpaper in the toilets - there's a good chance that they're still using that wine glass. There are clues but you need to look long and hard, the £10 note is too big and you don't see much 35mm film anymore but basically it is the same. Likewise the 80-year-old images haven't really dated. I'll bet Sunday morning in Bolton Weatherspoon's isn't very different, bar the cigarettes smoke and the colour.

If we're looking for honesty perhaps the distinction is behind the camera. The Jade Goodys and the Neil Hamiltons will always perform if encouraged but that wasn't the premise of Mass Observation. Kane may goad his subjects but he didn't take pictures of women's bottoms with a secret camera.


Ancient and Modern
201 Whitecross Street
London EC1Y 8Q

Wednesday-Saturday, 12pm-6pm, and by appointment

Alan Kane and Humphrey Spender —  Untitled 'Work Town photograph'  Humphrey Spender  1937/8  (c) Bolton

Untitled 'Work Town photograph'
Humphrey Spender
(c) Bolton Museum