Jo Spence

Born in 1934 in London (GB)
Died in 1992 in London (GB)

Circa 1959, I

Colour photograph, cibachrome
91 x 61 cm
Year of Purchase: 1989

Working on her own body, the photographer Jo Spence explores how we construct our social identities. She proposes that we reappropriate the popular uses of the medium and turn it into an instrument for therapy and rebellion. The idea is to ward off the suffering produced by the violence inherent to our lifestyles standardized by the dominant culture, and reactivate processes whereby we socialize the self in order to rebuild our identity.

The viewer is implicitly called upon to embark on the same undertaking that can lead to direct involvement through various devices set in place at exhibitions and photography workshops for feminist groups, therapy groups and student organizations. This approach was aimed at replacing the notion of a universal public with the exploration of various types of audience within which production and negotiation processes were constantly being brought into play.

Jo Spence became involved in the theoretical debate in the London art scene during the 1970s through her commitment to the women’s lib movement and to questions relating to documentary photography. She wrote a great deal,1 had a hand in launching the review Camerawork and with Terry Dennett set up the Photography Workshop in London, a place for experimentation, exhibitions and historical research, where her involvement in educational activity reached such a pitch that it became one with her art: ‘I finally called myself an educational photographer.’2

What she holds onto from feminism are the reflections on identity – as the fruit of an education, a culture and not of one’s essence – and its deconstruction of control phenomena arising from a power struggle – language and representations as revealing inequalities on which a subject’s social construction is based. Lastly, she challenges the hyper-aesthetic approach to documentary photography for its victimizing representations that reproduce the very inequalities they are supposed to be denouncing. This critique was possible through the artist’s active participation in rediscovering the revolutionary amateur photography of the interwar years: movements like the Workers’ International Photography League were instruments of representation run by worker organizations seeking to undermine established bourgeois distribution channels through journals. This repressed side of the history of photography was crucial to artists like Jo Spence or the American Martha Rosler; the traditional bond between the photographer and the person sitting for the portrait was broken in favour of a new producer / subject with full powers over how they were to be portrayed. Understandably therefore, Spence stubbornly refused to picture other people apart from cases of close collaborations where roles became interchangeable, and she remained attached to techniques available to all.

The photographs from the mid 1980s in the Frac collection are testimony to the rich collaborative experience forged in the course of her brief career (for these particular works with the photographer Rosy Martin). The forms of alienation are updated, reactivated by the protagonists who recall their memories as they play the part of various characters who belong to their emotional world. The camera has become both a mirror and the look on society: ‘a reappropriation approach has taken over from deconstruction work. Experimentation mimicking processes of alienation has replaced critical distancing.’3

Frédéric Oyharçabal

1 To quote two group publications: Terry Dennett, David Evans, Sylvia Gohl, Jo Spence, Photography/Politic: One, Photography Workshop, London, 1979; and Patricia Holland, Jo Spence, Simon Watney, Photography/Politic: Two, Comedia/Photography Workshop, London, 1986.

2 Jo Spence, ‘Some Questions and Answers’, in Putting Myself in the Picture, Camden Press, London, 1986, p. 204.

3 Jean-François Chevrier and James Lingwood, Matter of Facts, photographie art contemporain en Grande-Bretagne, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, 1988, p. 11.