Crowd at the Motor Show in Paris, 1923, Maurice-Louis Branger, Parisienne de Photographie, In Copyright

The fading of class distinctions, the development of national identities and the societal effects of industrialisation sparked off ‘the age of the crowd’ in the mid-19th century. The worker’s class had grown more vocal and could convene more easily owing to improvements in mobility. United by frustrations and ideals, people began started to rally more often and in greater numbers to share their concerns and voice their opinion.

The contemporaneous rise of photography and the immediacy of the medium made it the pre-eminent documentary witness of mass behaviour. Pictures preserve something of the sparkle and the vigour that once united thousands of spirits. Yet a photographer can also opt to focus on the ones standing out of the crowd.

This image focuses on a small group among a gathering of 80,000 soldiers. It commemorates the largest review of English ex-servicemen ever made by a British monarch. In an hour-long march-past, detachments from all parts of the country paraded, including a company of the Boer War veterans and 200 men who had been blinded in battle. Raised onto the shoulders of his fellow soldiers is Sir General Hubert Gough: a legendary British officer who fought in the Boer War and World War I. He was held in high regard by some, yet criticised by others for his over-confident belief in the efficiency of cavalry attacks. Furthermore, Gough was blamed for the collapse of the Fifth Army during the great German push in the Battle of Passchendaele, March 1918. He did not hold command again until after the war. After the publication of his self-vindicating memoirs (1931), Gough was knighted in 1937. 

In this image, the Highnesses of the carnival in Mainz take pride of place. In a whirl of laughing and cheering people celebrating the 100th anniversary of the leading local carnival association, the ‘princes’ make their way through the city. The photographer has caught them in a dynamic close-up, with the crowd fading into the background. Focus, perspective and position leave no room for misinterpretation: these are the belles of the ball!

Main market square of Leuven, Belgium, before 1914, , Stadsarchief Leuven/Collection Eugène Sprengers, In Copyright
Main market square of Leuven, Belgium, before 1914, , Stadsarchief Leuven/Collection Eugène Sprengers, In Copyright

This photograph too highlights the odd one out. While the crowd is enjoying a spectacle with ‘Jan Klaassen’ - a popular character from Dutch puppet theatre -  the boy in front has a more vivid interest in the camera. While the decor is beautifully luminous and detailed, the onlookers seem to disappear in a dark, anonymous mass. The frontal view of the boy as well as the light reflected by his face make him the real star of the image.

Other photographers have radically chosen not to depict the crowd, but to suggest its size and density.

This image serves as a perfect example. In focus are a few of the children cheering Queen Mary when she opened the new extension to Lambeth Town Hall, Brixton. Surrounding them: an immense crowd of royalty fans, among which 1200 children from more than 100 schools. The restraining hand of the law on the small boy is a token to the vastness of the crowd, painting a more vivid image than a panoramic shot could have done.

In whatever form, style or perspective, a photo of a human mass portrays much more than a multitude of individuals: it attests to a moment bigger than life, in which not just the number of people but the magnitude of their cause has the biggest impact. 

If you have enjoyed this exhibition, then look out for the next installment in The Pleasure of Plenty series. Next time we’ll be browsing world exhibitions, spectacular trade shows and startling displays in highly detailed images. In the meantime, explore history in photographs on Europeana Photography.