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

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