Spender initially studied architecture in London, but, following his qualification in 1933, he set up a photographic studio. After two years working at the Daily Mirror under the name Lensman, he photographed in Bolton for the Mass Observation movement (an independent body aiming to record the reality of daily life in Britain). In 1938 he joined the newly-founded, illustrated magazine 'Picture Post', where he took similar documentary photographs. Following a brief period of conscription in 1941, he spent the rest of the war as an official photographer and interpreter of photo-reconnaissance pictures. He abandoned photography after the war and went on to become a successful textile designer and tutor at the Royal College of Art, from 1953 to 1975. He was also a successful painter.