Alan Kane and Humphrey Spender

Bruce Haines Mayfair

As “In the Face of History,” an exhibition of twentieth-century European documentary photography, was closing down the road at the Barbican, Ancient and Modern was doing its bit to represent Great Britain’s contribution to the genre, in the work of Alan Kane and Humphrey Spender. The style’s British proponents are often seen to have started off valiantly if a little bit dully, only for their sociological intent to get lost in the shiny, grotesque netherworld of Martin Parr, but this exhibition offered a worthwhile second look.

Spender, who died in 2005, was one of Britain’s great black-and-white social documentarians. The photographs on view here were taken in the town of Bolton in 1937 and 1938, when Spender was on assignment to produce an “anthropology of ourselves” for the social-research organization Mass Observation. Today his photographs, all untitled, seem to tell of a simpler, better time. Daylight seeps into beautiful old pubs with wooden paneling and etched-glass windowpanes; their habitués are carefully dressed members of the working class: two respectable-looking ladies in serious conversation; a cloth-capped man finishing up his drink in front of a poster advertising “Magee Marshall & Co.” brewery in finely wrought script; a slightly slumped couple with beatific smiles. Besides pubs, Spender shot the straight lines and empty cobbled streets of new housing developments, and his photographs of chalked graffiti also neatly capture sarcastic British humor. With time, such images have come to look clichéd, but they constitute an important contribution to British documentary photography only rarely considered outside of picture-postcard land. (“In the Face of History” included just two British photographers.)

Kane, who (with Jeremy Deller) recently compiled an archive of contemporary folk art from Britain and Ireland, documents his exploits out on the town in London in the series “Trying to Die Happy,” ca. 1995–2001. The artist and his friends clearly revel in being photographic subjects, and they represent a rowdy, uninhibited, post-Thatcher, New Labour Britain, with none of the subdued dignity of Spender’s day: Two ladies, their skirts yanked up, press their crotches against each other; a gob of spit falls from the lips of a pale-faced man; and so on. Even the scenery has been disrupted—a bar interior contains a stolen traffic cone wedged under a table.

Whether it is really necessary to be exposed to yet another series of turn-of-the-millennium lifestyle photos à la Terry Richardson and Juergen Teller, I don’t know. But consider that the Mass Observation project—even though it is rightly credited for its invaluable contribution to the postwar creation of the welfare state—was treated with great suspicion by Bolton’s residents. Spender was aware of this hostility (he frequently had to conceal his camera) as well as the class divide his camera imposed between himself and his subjects. The same certainly does not apply to Kane’s more collaborative project—liberated citizens of the meritocracy, flaunt your lack of inhibitions! The presentation of the two together could have offered a didactic picture of England now and then—Ancient and Modern—but fortunately this was avoided, as their juxtaposition revisited the ongoing complexity of class issues in our gloriously classless society.

Emily Speers Mears