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Humphrey Spender, Worktown People

Every now and then I'm revisiting some of the books and other stuff on my shelves here. I'll start with this one . . .

Fron cover of Worktown People by the photographer Humphrey Spender

Nobody really talks about Humphrey Spender now which is a shame. I hold him close to my heart because back in the day he drew me towards a type of photography I had never considered before. I originally come across Worktown People in my public library in the early 1980s. Until then photography for me was about making pretty pictures and I'd never thought about its documentary value. This book set me on a different path which eventually lead me to studying photography at university.

Over the years I moved on to other photographers and more contemporary styles so poor old Humphrey slipped my mind. Then by chance I found Worktown People in a second-hand shop and the name came back to me like a forgotten friend. It cost me less than £10 and it's signed by the man himself. A real bargain.

Spender described himself as a reluctant photographer and he eventually gave up, frustrated by its limitations, in order to concentrate on his painting and design work. In the book there's a fantastic interview with him in which, with refreshing honesty, he talks about his approach to photography and his involvement with the Mass Observation project in the 1930s.

I love to imagine him; a well-spoken, upper-middle class southerner feeling terribly embarrassed and out of place in Bolton, trying to photograph without people noticing him and doing much better than he probably realised.

Worktown People is a real pleasure to look through. It's a shame it's not printed better but the images are lovely... very gentle and human, as I imagine Humphrey was himself. Here's a little taster.

This one was used for the cover of an Everything But The Girl album (which also happens to be here on my shelf).


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