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Humphrey Spender was the third son of Harold Spender, a Liberal journalist and writer who founded the Boys' Club movement with Arnold Toynbee. Humphrey's mother, Violet Schuster, came from a German family who had emigrated to England in the 1870s. She died in 1921. Harold Spender died in 1926. Humphrey had two brothers (the poet Stephen Spender and the scientist and explorer Michael Spender) and one sister, Christine.
As a child, Humphrey learnt photography from his older brother Michael Spender and was given a handsome German camera for his tenth birthday.
After Gresham's School, Spender initially studied art history at Freiburg University for a year, then qualified for a career in architecture with the Architectural Association before training as a photographer.
He went on to become a famous Fleet Street photographer and worked for the magazine Picture Post 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'. (Worktown was the Mass Observationist's codename for Bolton). Taken in a period between 1937 and 1940, his photographs cover the full range of Mass-Observation’s interests - politics and elections; religion; street scenes; industrial landscapes; the public house; market scenes; new buildings and developments; observers in action; sport and leisure time; work in the textile mills; on holiday in Blackpool; street hoardings and advertisements.
With the coming of World War II, Spender served briefly in the Royal Army Service Corps before being appointed an official war photographer. He also worked as an interpreter of photo-reconnaissance pictures, identifying German rocket sites and making maps for D-Day.
Spender's first wife, Margaret Low, with whom he adopted a son, died in 1945. His second wife, Pauline Wynn, with whom he had a son, died in 2003. He then married the photographer Rachel Hewitt, who was more than fifty years younger.
Spender had told his wives before marrying them that he was bisexual and he had affairs with both men and women throughout his life, numbering Frederick Ashton and Paul Robeson's wife amongst his conquests.
- Humphrey Spender: Artist whose photographs of the working classes became regarded as an invaluable historical record, obituary in Daily Telegraph (London, England) March 15, 2005, from Humphrey Spender at Newspapers Online Gale (accessed 22 August 2007)