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

Nolan, MIchael (2020) An Egalitarian Gaze: Photographic Representations of Working People in Britain, 1919- 1939. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

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Abstract

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.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HT Communities. Classes. Races
T Technology > TR Photography
Schools: School of Music, Humanities and Media
Depositing User: Christine Morelli
Date Deposited: 06 Jan 2021 15:02
Last Modified: 06 Jan 2021 15:02
URI: http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/id/eprint/35301

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