Jo Spence

28th March 2020

As part of my research my tutor suggested looking at Jo Spence’s self-portrait work, especially ‘Remodelling Photo History, Revisualization’ 1981-1982. Remodelling Photo History is also known as The History Lesson.

However, on beginning my research I have found Jo Spence to be such an inspiration and of interest to me that I will research her and her works in depth.

Crisis Project / Picture of Health 1982

image and accompanying text from Tate website

Jo Spence (15 June 1934, London – 24 June 1992, London) was a British photographer, a writer, cultural worker, and a photo therapist. She began her career in the field of commercial photography but soon started her own agency which specialised in family portraits, and wedding photos. In the 1970s, she refocused her work towards documentary photography, adopting a politicized approach to her art form, with socialist and feminist themes revisited throughout her career. Self-portraits about her own fight with breast cancer, depicting various stages of her breast cancer to subvert the notion of an idealized female form, inspired projects in ‘photo therapy’, a means of using the medium to work on psychological health.

Although Spence began her photography career in the commercial sector she worked her way to become a notable independent photographer who is an important figure in the history of feminist photography. She was also a British writer and educator who called herself a ‘Cultural Sniper’ who uses a camera rather than a gun.

14th May 2020

Remodelling Photo History

A joint photographic project between Jo Spence and Terry Dennett

Remodelling Photo History was first published in the journal Screen (May-June 1982). There it is presented as a sequence of 13 photographs, and with an accompanying text. In this form it consisted of 7 paired page spreads and beneath each pair of images is a prominent title.

British Photography
The Hyman Collection

Remodelling Photo history is a collaboration between Terry Dennett and Jo Spence. The above link to The Hyman Collection webpage describes the first publishing of the series. I couldn’t find an old copy of the Screen (May-June 1982) to purchase but when reading the content on the website I read that some of the work is in the book that I had just purchased, ‘Putting Myself In The Picture’ Camden Press, 1986 which is a ‘Political Personal and Photographic Autobiography.’

Jo Spence (1986). Putting Myself In The Picture. London: Camden Press Ltd

The opening paragraph about Remodelling Photo History reads:

At this period, Terry Dennett and I attempted to look closely and clearly at the way photography works in our society. The article, which we wrote at the time, explains what our project was about. the photos which follow show the work in practice.


A Collaboration Between Two photographers

Terry Dennett and Jo Spence

Jo Spence (1986). Putting Myself In The Picture. London: Camden Press Ltd
Notes from Jo Spence (1986). Putting Myself In The Picture. London: Camden Press Ltd

Examples of photographs in the Remodelling Photo History series presented with an image from the ‘unique artists book’:



This collaborative work was a means to re-invent how we take for granted genres in the historic and contemporary photography world. Spence and Dennett scripted their work, although allowed for some spontaneity and saw themselves as social actors. As social actors and worker photographers they began to disrupt the well known format for different genres and made strange ‘the everyday institutional practices and codes of the trade’ (Excerpt from Jo Spence (1986). Putting Myself In The Picture. London: Camden Press Ltd). Their photo theatre works were seen as a hybrid photographic genre in its own right and took on themes connected with work and sexuality.

They used large format cameras, tripods and took props to specifically chosen locations and occasionally added sparse text to their images.

I personally became very engaged with this series. I particularly became interested in their use of props to add context to their work. The props either appeared with a figure or on their own as a still life. This is a practice I have used where props were placed together as a three dimensional still life rather than a two dimensional photograph of them. This is another area that I can develop and one I find interesting.

Memorial Archive

These notes were taken while watching the video, Memorial Archive on youTube. This link will take you to the video on YouTube. It was uploaded by SOURCE Photographic Review on April 2012, ‘Terry Dennett, former partner of the artist Jo Spence (1934-1992) and curator of the Jo Spence Memorial Archive talks about Spence’s life and work. In Dennett’s flat, where the archive has been stored, the work has been boxed, ready to be sent to Ryerson University in Canada where it will join the university collection. He shows examples of her working albums, daybooks from her portrait studio, posters and magazines that she produced and books and ephemera from her collection.’

Screenshots from ‘Memorial Archive’ showing examples pf Jo Spence’s laminates

7th April 2020

Jo Spence: The Feminist Photography of a Cultural Sniper

Jo Spence was a British writer, educator and photographer – although she was quite ambivalent about being termed an ‘artist’. In fact, she much preferred to call herself a ‘Cultural Sniper’. But instead of brandishing a gun, Spence used her camera to shoot and expose issues in culture. One of the first woman photographers to confront the anxiety of seeing oneself in photographs, this HENI Talk explores how Spence targeted the media’s representation of women – always coded as young, plucked and perfectly made-up – by laying her own body on the line.


While researching Spence I came across the YouTube video Jo Spence: The Feminist Photography of a Cultural Sniper. I found it a valuable source of information about Jo Spence’s life and works, so much so that I have just found a new photographer that I absolutely admire in concept and content.

Below are my notes from the video. What I particularly like is how they build a picture of Spence from her beginnings as a secretary in a photographic studio through to her final project which is actually titled, ‘The Final Project.’

The video opens with a very powerful image called, ‘A Picture of Health: Helmet Shot,’ 1982. I paused the video and wrote a simple list of how I responded to the image. My response was:

*Powerful image *Black and White * Spence is standing sideways so that the viewer gets to see the scar on her breast *Body outline * Studio set up * Harsh lighting adding to the drama and harshness of the self-portrait and the topic of breast cancer *Unshaven – doesn’t care what she looks like now as shaving for beauty has no meaning now she has breast cancer, or is it a feminist point of view against shaving and having to portray yourself perfect when being photographed?

*What does the crash helmet symbolise? *We see on the side of the negative style border the word ‘Safety’ *Courage for giving yourself to the world, for all to see.

A Picture of Health: Helmet Shot, 1982
image from Pinterest

It wasn’t until I had uploaded the image to this post that I actually realised that the ‘negative type border’ was actually the border of a slide, then I remembered that Spence uses slides later on in her career where she sandwiches the slides together to get a double exposure effect which is also the same as layering images in Photoshop.

Terry Dennet (link takes you to the interview REMEMBERING JO SPENCE: A CONVERSATION WITH TERRY DENNETT, mutual took many of Spence’s portraits including the above image. I understand the image further now as the video pointed more information out to the viewers, for example while she is standing she is also looking at and confronting the viewer. Her arms are up and over the helmet protecting her head and the helmets viser hides part of her face and therefore hides her identity.

The helmet could also symbolise hiding, where in post care from cancer you are hiding from yourself, your partner and other people.

Jo could be seen as defiant or aggressive in this image because she is wearing a helmet which when seen without a motorbike could symbolise that you are going to do something dangerous.

As with many of Spence’s images she is making a statement about glamour photography, in this photograph her stance like many in nude photography makes the breasts look more pert and in her story brings home the reality of the breast cancer.

One of the concepts that had me thinking is connected with Spence’s ideas around family albums. She said that the images we have in these albums are unified across society in that we put in them photographs that tell stories of happy times and celebrations. These photographs tell stories from adult points of view mainly because they are a reference to how good family life was so they record highlights only. In doing this our albums have large absences within them, gaps of missing life which cannot be filled in. These gaps would be events such as deaths, divorces, conflicts, abuse and illness.

It is this concept that inspired Spence to display photographs of all types of herself, the good and the bad and having Bertold Brecht as an inspiration she used the idea of adding captions to her family photographs. This created an alternative narrative, a commentary on the desires, stories of pain and toil and strife, even trauma, Patricia Di Bello, Art historian.

screenshot taken from Contemporary Photography Index

The video actually ends with a thought about our photography practices today which are accessible to everyone of all ages and cultures. The conclusion to the video comments on the fact that we all take selfies and publicise them to everyone and anyone. The boundaries between private and public, what is personal and shared across the world to strangers is blurred. No longer shocked, the generation of today has begun a new revolution in digital photography and sometimes it is difficult to know which images are fact or fiction.

This is a topic that I have actually thought about since I have been making art, sculpture and photography at more of a professional level. How can we produce artworks and images that can grab peoples attention?Let us look at landscapes and seascapes for example, one is so like the next unless there is a narrative running through them. These picturesque images are less widely appreciated now, I believe this is because images are easily captured in their hundreds on mobile phones and people travel more widely now. The only exception being dangerous climates and landscapes and places which can not be easily travelled to. Unless there is a narrative or a concept within the landscape or seascape would we take more than a second or two to look at it?

Jo Spence would take images of herself the good and the bad. In the video she talks about how we should be taking more realistic photographs of ourselves and for women especially, we should stop presenting ourselves as an object of desire and that we should show ourselves naturally. Twenty years on our photography genres still do this. I am bombarded with images on social media of friends, family and even unknown people in all states of naturalness and glamour images are replaced with casual images. From dressing up to dressing down, even nighties and bikini wear is acceptable. However the use of filters are widely used and the ‘real’ person is more often than not, the one that is being presented.

The question for me is, how can photographers push the boundaries now in a world of digital images where a click of a camera is second nature?

8th April 2020

Libido Uprising (1989)

In their collaborative series Libido Uprising, Spence and Martin examine the relationship between mother and daughter. The work focuses on Jo’s vision of a 1950s working class, domesticated housewife, seen from the eyes of a young woman in the 1980s who is exploring her sexual freedom. The series complicates the archetypal woman, one juggling multiple jobs with household chores, whilst maintaining her identity as an independent and sexualised being. The work captures the conflict between the domestic and the erotic and how they co-exist. Rather than a rejection of the mother figure, the series evokes a sense of understanding, acceptance and intergenerational comradery around the socially imposed strictures of womanhood.

Richard Saltoun
Libido Uprising Part I and Part II (1989), Jo Spence with Rose Martin
image from TATE

Red stilettos are a powerful cliche representing the idea of sexy women. By juxtaposing this cliche symbol with a hoover, Spence has made a statement, she is showing the overlapping demands that women have. It is symbolising how women have to show seductiveness and sexy yet still be able to do the cleaning. The image below therefore represents the perfect housewife.

from the Libido Uprising series (1989)
image from Tate

Taking control

Jo Spence was diagnosed with cancer in the 1980s. She decided to take a camera into the hospital to document what was happening but she has also said it was to help herself and lesson her fear because it was like having a friend with her. Not only did she use her camera as an emotional crouch but she wanted to keep a visual diary of something that was frightening her. She even had to negotiate to take some of the photographs by lying.

The photographs Spence took helped to her to take control of her own health rather than just relying on her doctors and the work became an influential part of a whole movement of patients rights.

The images from her early diagnosis are powerful and a reminder that living with cancer is a horrifying journey from diagnosis, testing, treating and onto recovery, if you are fortunate to recover that is. The images below are from Spence’s first encounters with cancer.

I have learnt much more about this period in Spence’s personal and photographic life but have kept it for further research write ups in the future when I will be looking in depth at her practices, her work and her life.

The Final Project

When Spence became ill again with leukaemia she knew she was confronting death this time. Her last work is called ‘The Final Project’ 1991. She was still committed however to representing herself and others right up until the end.

This work took on a different creative direction. Spence would sandwich slides taken previously with ones taken specifically for this project giving a similar effect to how layers can be seen in Photoshop projects today. She did this so that she was able to insert her body into different natural settings.

The Final Project is more similar of how I have used my photographs in my own work and exhibitions. It is combined with ‘artistic’ methods such as photomontage and adding three dimensional objects on top of photographs and then reshooting this as the final images.

This work is very informative to my own practices and actually helps me to critic mine more efficiently. Working on my own separate from other artists and photographers actually means that apart from research I have no other influences on my work and I have no one to critique it and help me develop. This is where the OCA has been invaluable, yes I am moving on and my technical skills and knowledge is developing but I now have the support of someone who is able to look at my work objectively and critique it.

The website David Camany shows ‘The Final Project Work’ in a gallery setting, exhibition. Seeing how the work has also been presented is also invaluable information. Up until now because my work has always been within a group exhibition and I have not been able to say how I want my work placed, I can actually see that how I have always wanted to show my work would give more dynamic amiss to the exhibition apace and my photographs. Unfortunately for me my work has always been shown in very sterile lines or squares.

The examples of exhibition walls above show different aspects of Spences images, hanging compositions and framing. Framing is also another area that I need guidance in. So far my joint exhibitions have always been over seen by someone and again because they are not professionals in the fields of art and photography, my work has just been framed without thought. They look OK but not professional enough for me.

Further research

I managed to purchase three books by Jo Spence all second hand from eBay. The first, Jo Spence: The Final Project, the second, What can a woman do with a camera – photography for women which she co-wrote with Joan Solomon and Putting Myself in the Picture which is a political, personal and photographic autobiography.

Louisa Lee (2013), Jo Spence: The Final Project. London: Ridinghouse.
Jo Spence (1986). Putting Myself In The Picture. London: Camden Press Ltd
image taken from
Jo Spence and Joan Solomon

I have decided not to write any more information on research that I have done for two reasons. The first reason is I already know that for Exercise 4.8 Emulation I am choosing Jo Spence, so there will be more research and write ups within this exercise. Secondly If on the photography degree we get to research in great depth and inspiration I would like to consider Jo Spence for that work, therefore doing too much too soon will be an injustice to my learning and college work.

So although I am reading the books and watching documentaries and taking notes I am keeping these for future use.

This research has been the most influential to my own practice so far. It has made me look more inwards on my own documentation and self-portrait works. Spence has really helped me move forwards in my practice.

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