Writing into the Void: Photographic Imaginaries and Ekphrastic Descriptions in Mass Observation

Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk


An invited keynote lecture for the 2022 annual conference of the Photographic History Research Centre, De Montfort University, Leicester, on the subject of Photography without Photographs.

Writing into the Void: Photographic imaginaries and ekphrastic descriptions in Mass Observation

The social research organisation, Mass Observation, founded in 1937 to create ‘an anthropology of ourselves’, has visuality implicit in its title. In its earliest years, photographers, painters and filmmakers were employed as researchers to document British everyday life, but these methods were short-lived, and the results often disconnected from the more prominent research focus, which emphasised the written record. Nonetheless, the founders – whose interests ranged across poetry, ornithology and film – used photographic metaphors extensively and considered ‘the image’ to be central, even if it remained in the mind’s eye and took a written form. This talk will outline how photography has formed an absent presence across Mass Observation since its inception, with a particular exploration of photographic writing in the later Mass Observation Project.
The Mass Observation Project was established in 1981 as a revival of aspects of first-phase Mass Observation (1937-1960s). Its organisers characterise it as a life-writing project first and foremost. A volunteer panel, comprised of several hundred carefully-named correspondents, answers thrice-yearly ‘directives’ on a range of subjects. In 2012, correspondents considered photography and reflected at length on photographs that they had lost and that they had accidentally or deliberately destroyed, as well as photographs that exist only in their minds’ eyes. This talk will argue that these written photographs, vividly and dramatically produced in ekphrastic descriptions, embody the imagistic ambitions of Mass Observation’s founders but also correspond with wider photographic cultures that consider absent photographs, such as Will Steacy’s 2012 collection, Photographs Not Taken. This similarly examines, as Lyle Rexer has put it, ‘pictures that could not be taken, pictures that were prevented from being taken, pictures that were taken and failed, pictures that were almost taken but abandoned, pictures that might have been taken but were renounced, pictures that were missed and became memories before they could be taken, and … pictures that were taken of one thing and were really about something entirely different that could not be shown directly’.
Period13 Jun 202214 Jun 2022
Held atDe Montfort University, United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionInternational