In some ways we’re in a golden age for pub photography as almost everyone now has a relatively powerful camera on their phone, but just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s simple.
Historically, photos of pubs tend to be of the exteriors. That’s partly because of the availability of lights, partly because the exteriors were highly decorated, and also perhaps because drinking has been, and maybe still is, a somewhat furtive activity.
There is the odd historic interior shot, more often than not taken by brewery photographers to document the decor, and thus usually eerily empty. But this one from c.1915, a favourite of ours, is an exception:
Even there, though, it’s obvious they’ve been told to sit very still and not to smile so it hardly looks natural. Things start to get really good with Humphrey Spender’s photographs of Bolton pubs for Mass Observation, taken in the late 1930s. We’ve used a few on the blog before but here’s a particularly dynamic example, where you can almost taste the mild, smell the smoke and hear the clack of the dominoes on the table:
Spender snapped quickly without necessarily asking permission and occasionally got thrown out by irritated landlords. Eighty years on, the results are totally worth it — moments in time, faces, relationships, all captured without varnish.