English photographer, painter and textile designer. He studied architecture at the Albert-Ludwigs Universität, Freiburg, in Germany (1927–8) and at the Architectural Association School in London (1929–34). During his time in Germany he absorbed the influence of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement and of photographic developments in illustrated journals such as the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung. Though largely self-taught, he did learn photographic techniques from his brother Michael Spender, an employee of the Leitz camera factory. Among other jobs he worked as a commercial and portrait photographer (1934–9), and as a staff photographer for the Daily Mirror (1936–8) and for Picture Post (1946–9). From its foundation in 1937 until 1939 he was the official photographer for the Mass Observation project, which brought together painters, poets, social scientists and film makers to record the details of everyday British life. During the project Spender worked with a concealed camera so that the scenes he captured were entirely natural, as in Bolton, Wasteland (1937; see Spender, 1987, p. 16). His work for Mass Observation typified his belief that the prime role of photography was to be a means of social documentary (for illustration see Mass Observation).
During World War II, Spender worked first as a photographer for the Ministry of Information, then as a War Office official photographer and finally as a photo-interpreter for the Intelligence Service. From 1949 he moved away from photography towards painting and textile design, having a number of one-man shows at the Redfern Gallery in London from 1943 onwards. From 1953 to 1975 he was a tutor in textile design at the Royal College of Art and from 1960 to 1975 a visiting lecturer at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, both in London.