An Egalitarian Gaze
: Photographic Representations of Working People in Britain, 1919- 1939

  • Michael Nolan

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis explores the nature of the photography of working people in Britain during the inter-war years (1919-1939). This period saw the emergence of powerful practices of photographing working people in continental Europe and this research has enquired into the existence of similar traditions here. It asks if differing ways of representing them can be identified and what was their significance; in particular it examines whether it is possible to find modes which are distinctive in their positive depiction of the working class, and, if so, what are their social and political significance? These questions have been researched through four broad, and often, little used categories of photographic archives: those produced by European political refugees; those produced by individual, usually professional and middle-class, photographers; those produced by working people
themselves; and those produced for those parts of the press that were supportive of the Left.

From these a range of representations have been identified, often interpenetrating and contesting for meaning. They demonstrate that this photography was not simply a means by which a dominant culture transferred its values and requirements to a passive working class. Rather, it was part of a cultural arena within which competing forms can be found. Central to this thesis has been the discovery of an honorific mode of representation, positively celebrating the qualities of working people. It becomes visible when compared to other contemporary photographic conventions. It becomes visible when employing the methodology of those historians who have focussed on the active creation and consumption of cultural objects by working people. And it becomes visible when the fractured nature of much of the archive of working-class photography is reconstituted into its original form - a domestic or familial photography - which helps to clarify the nature of both its production and its consumption.

Once this honorific representation is made visible its significance emerges. Its existence expands awareness of the range of ways in which working people were represented photographically. And this range, in turn, enhances understanding of this photography as a cultural field in which these different representations competed for attention. But it also has a cultural significance, in that working people can be seen to be actively using photography to give value and meaning to their lives, to be actively engaged in their own self-formation. It also has a formal political significance in that this mode was taken up and used by a wide range of popular newspapers and journals that were sympathetic to the working class, contributing to their social formation. Thus, within these honorific representations there is a rejection of contemporary biological explanations of social differences, and a similar rejection of any concept of working people being moulded by power into passive units of production and consumption. Rather, it is a form which displays strong horizontal conjunctions between working people, little interest in displays of material wealth, a vigorous assertion of their humanity and economic importance, and an expansion of the idea of the ‘deserving poor’ to the point where it included almost everyone. It is a photography that emerges at precisely the time when changes in wage structure, employment and urban settlement patterns suggest that a strong sense of homogeneity, or class formation, was developing among working people and at the heart of this thesis is the discovery of a contemporary mode of representing working people that is honorary, celebratory and, perhaps most remarkably, egalitarian. When placed into the context of contemporary economic, political and cultural developments, a photography is recovered and described, distinct from others, which can be seen to form a part of the emergence of an alternative discourse in British society about the personal worth and economic value of working people.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorLiam Devlin (Co-Supervisor) & Alexander Von Lunen (Co-Supervisor)

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