The early photographic master at capturing human behaviour!


Humphrey Spender may be a name you have come across before and you have had the opportunity to admire his work and the emotional scenes he was able to capture.

A professional photography legend from German descent and the son of a journalist and writer Humphrey Spender studied History at Freiburg University, in Germany. During his time at the university he gained exposure and interest in continental Europe avant-garde photography and film. He went on to enroll at university to study architecture but this wasn’t to be his career choice, favouring photography.

After setting up a studio in The Strand he built a reputation as a renowned professional commercial photographer. At this time he took a great deal of photography for commercial advertising and although this part of his career lasted some time his work was recognised by the Daily Mirror and Spender was recruited under the nickname, ‘Lensman’.

Spender became a member of the Mass Observation movement, taking pictures of daily life in working class communities. His most famous photographs are of the ‘Worktown Study’. Taken from 1937 to 1940, his photographs cover the full range of Mass Observation Interests including  politics, elections, religion, industrial landscapes, public houses, market scenes, new buildings and developments, sport, leisure, work in the textile mills, holidays, street hoardings and advertisements. Spender also took on work as a photographer for the recently established magazine at the time Picture Post, which went on to become highly successful.

During World War II, Spender served with the Royal Army Service Corps before being appointed as an official war photographer. He also worked as an interpreter of photo-reconnaissance pictures, identifying German rocket sites and making maps for D-Day.

This part of his history was quite unusual given he had spent a great deal of time in the Germanic regions of Europe and encountered Heinrich Himmler, the notorious head of the Nazi SS while staying at an Austrian hotel on reconnaissance duty. Spender was able to quietly leave the location unnoticed, otherwise it would have meant certain death for him because of his background.

By 1955 he abandoned photography commercially but not as an interest and went on to explore painting and textile design. This saw him teach at the Royal College of Art from 1953 until he retired in 1975.

In 1968, Spender moved to Maldon in Essex, where he lived at The Studio, Ulting until his death in 2005 aged 94.

To commemorate Spender’s life as one of the great photographers of his time Hayletts Gallery in Maldon, Essex is exhibiting his work. The exhibition ends May 4th.

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