Stand in Contradiction, Write or be written off: Jo Spence, autobiography and archive

In a letter written before her death in 1992 Jo Spence asked that people celebrate her birthday annually on June 15th. Today to celebrate the lasting impact of her life and work I am posting this article making connections between her inspiring autobiography Putting Myself in the Picture, her desire to take power over her own representation and a library of books which she collected in her lifetime.

Spence’s legacy is not only as a photographer but also as a writer who overcame her fears of revealing her class origins and being “found out” to be able to represent her ideas and tell her own story.

In recent years I have had the privilege to be able to sort through Spence’s considerable library of books and other material which was donated to Birkbeck College’s History and Theory of Photography Research Centre by one of her former collaborator’s, Terry Dennett.[1]

Sifting through these eclectic books, magazines and journals; certain themes spring to obvious attention. Art, health, politics and all aspects of photography; it’s history, theory and practice are central to the collection, while some more surprising titles hint at Spence’s wider interests, humour and ways of working.

Spence’s career and photography was diverse. At different points she worked as a farm secretary, a high street wedding and portrait photographer and a secretary for the British Film Institute (BFI). In her photographic work she engaged with documentary photography and community projects. She photographed women at work and worked on problems of representation with women’s collective – the Hackney Flashers. She collaborated with the Polysnappers; a group of women photographers at the Polytechnic of Central London and worked with dolls to explore questions of the family, fantasy and gender roles.[2]

Spence worked on projects about her own family album, fairy tales and gender representation. She was also a prolific writer, including writing on photomontage by John Heartfield and how women can use photography positively in everyday life.[3] Working with Rosy Martin they developed practices of photo therapy. Utilising co-counselling, memory and childhood photographs, Spence and Martin re-visited, restaged and explored crucial parts of their lives and development in empowering ways.[4]

Part of Jo Spence's former book collection which includes community and political photography books, now kept at The Jo Spence Memorial Library - Terry Dennett Collection at Birkbeck. Photograph Angela Stapleford
Part of Jo Spence’s former book collection which includes community and political photography books, now kept at The Jo Spence Memorial Library – Terry Dennett Collection at Birkbeck. Photograph Angela Stapleford

Some elements of Spence’s work may appear disconnected. But when presenting her story and career in her written work Spence never attempted to gloss over any elements of her past which may have seemed less relevant. For example, she once attempted landscape photography. It was not her style, but she published some examples of this in her autobiography anyway, and with humour she comments that she quickly became convinced to “forget about it”. [5]

It is in Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political Personal and Photographic Autobiography, that a commentary emerges to give cohesion across her work and which can also help to appreciate the diverse contents of her former book collection. Rather than a linear narrative the autobiography is a collection of articles and pieces of writing which Spence put together as part of a development of her work in 1986. After having a Review of Work exhibition at the Cambridge Darkroom, Spence received feedback that it was difficult for viewers’ to negotiate the text heavy exhibition on the wall, and so she decided to present her story in a book format.[6]

She actively resisted attempts to categorise herself and her work. When discussing her work and her attempts to document it through her writing she wrote:

I want this to stand in contradiction to the usual “history of photography” approach, which carefully arranges photographers in schools and genres, assumes that mostly we work alone, and perpetuates various myths about creativity, rather than acknowledging that we are positioned within a cultural and economic network of relationships.[7]

Spence’s work addresses many themes which relate back and forth, in a process of relation and juxtaposition in much the same way that she utilised a wide variety of methods. Through different periods of her work she used therapy, montage, printed or handwritten text, props and costumes.

Props used by Jo Spence, now kept at The Jo Spence Memorial Library - Terry Dennett Collection at Birkbeck. Photograph Angela Stapleford
Props used by Jo Spence, now kept at The Jo Spence Memorial Library – Terry Dennett Collection at Birkbeck. Photograph Angela Stapleford

Martin has written of Spence that her “mission was to link the personal and political, to use her experiences as a focus to highlight issues of class, gender, disease and ageing”.[8] Spence’s  acknowledgement that her work did not stand alone in isolation of society or from her personal life makes it possible to understand how her work evolved as an interweaving of representation, community, politics, health and the impact of social history on the individual.

Spence questioned the ability of photographs to fully represent the world. This led her to become a prolific writer, believing it was essential to write about her work to fully convey her ideas and opinions and to avoid being misrepresented. She wrote of how she did not wish “to be fodder for the fantasies of other cultural workers” after numerous negative experiences with her representation on TV.[9] As a result she made her own proposals for TV documentaries and in a similar way she ensured that she made her own written accounts of her life and work.

She did not only write about her own work, but also engaged in cultural theory debates. While working as a secretary at the BFI in the mid-1970s Spence’s confidence about her “cultural education” grew and she was able to research and write on the representation of women during the Second World War and the representations of white-collar workers in the media. Her resulting articles were published in Screen and other publications.[10] Her research was based on evidence in the form of images she collected from the popular press, which she had gathered as part of her work with Photography Workshop, and which is now part of the Jo Spence Memorial Library Collection housed at Birkbeck.

Part of Jo Spence’s former book collection, which includes books on photography history, now kept at The Jo Spence Memorial Library – Terry Dennett Collection at Birkbeck. Photograph Angela Stapleford

Her strength of feeling about her need to express herself in writing is illustrated by photographs from a series entitled “Triple Somersaults” in which Spence dealt with her relationship with her mother in a series of Triptychs. In one, a handwritten note stuck to a wall above a shrouded body states grimly “WRITE or be WRITTEN OFF”. Lynda Nead has noted that this image

points to one of the dominant themes in her work. To write, or more generally, to represent, is to take power; to tell your own stories rather than succumb to the tales of others.[11]

In another image by Spence, the same tagged foot is seen near a waste basket containing many of the recognisable publications which she had written or contributed to. The gesture of placing her writing in the bin seems to show a fear that the legacy of Spence’s writing could be negated by her death, placing an emphasis on her anxiety over representation that in the end her accounts could still be ignored or forgotten.

The image is a reminder of Spence’s ambivalence about her writing. Although she found it very important to write and to have her voice heard she also recognised that her writing was a way of changing herself to fit in with what others expected of her and was symptomatic of her attempts to “try to conceal … my class origins”. In a caption accompanying a photograph showing her seated at a writing desk surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper Spence wrote, “In 1979 I enrol as a a mature student and for three years hide my terror of being ‘found out’ under a welter of obsessive study and paper writing”.[12] This image, foregrounded by discarded writing, could be seen to foreshadow the image where Spence has consciously placed her published writing in a wastepaper bin.

The act of photography can be considered to create a trace, an indexical piece of evidence that something existed before the camera; Spence was anxious to “write or be written off”. This collection of publications and other material, many of which contain her photographic and written work, act as a trace of her continued struggle with representation.

Her battle for and over representation was just one aspect of Spence’s multi-layered work and personal narrative, but in the library collection of books she had collected and which has now been added to with further writing about her, that battle for her own representation quietly rages on.

All works cited can be found in the Jo Spence Memorial Library – Terry Dennett Collection. Putting Myself in the Picture is out of print but can be found in several libraries and second hand book outlets.

Text © Angela Stapleford, Community, education & photography, June 2015.

Further reading

Louisa Lee, (ed.), Jo Spence: The Final Project, London: Ridinghouse, 2013.

Martin, Rosy and Spence, Jo ‘Photo Therapy: New Portraits for Old’ in Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political Personal and Photographic Autobiography, London: Camden Press, 1986, pp. 172-193.

Martin, Rosy, ‘The sign as a site of empowerment – in memory of Jo Spence’, Feminist Art News, volume four, number four, 1992.

Lynda Nead, ‘Missing Persons/Damaged Lives: Jo Spence in collaboration with Rosy Martin, Ya’acov Khan, David Roberts, Tim Sheard: A Touring exhibition organised by Leeds City Art Galleries’, exhibition booklet, Yorkshire Arts, 1991.

Spence, Jo, Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political Personal and Photographic Autobiography, London: Camden Press, 1986.

Spence, Jo,  ‘The Sign as a Site of Class Struggle: Reflections on Works by John Heartfield in Patricia Holland, Jo Spence and Simon Watney (eds.), Photography Politics Two, London: Comedia Publishing Group, 1986, pp. 176-186.

Spence, Jo and Solomon, Joan, What Can a Woman do with a Camera? London: Scarlet Press, 1995.

Spence, Jo, ‘Questioning Documentary Practice: The Sign as a Site of Struggle’, Keynote paper for National Conference of Photography, April 3, 1987, reproduced in Documenta Magazine No 2, 2007 Life!, p. 113, pp. 101-117, Third Text, London, 2007.

Jo Spence, ‘What Do People Do All Day? Class and Gender in Images of Women’, Screen Education, Winter: 1978/79 Number 29, pp. 29-45.

[1] Terry Dennett has worked as a scientific photographer and developed community photography projects. He met Spence when visiting the Children’s Rights Workshop in 1973 and they began working collaboratively forming “Photography Workshop”. They worked together on projects including ‘Remodelling Photo History’ and ‘The Crisis Project’. After Spence’s death in 1992 Dennett acted as curator of the Jo Spence Memorial Archive. He took care of much of Spence’s work and developed an archive of her research and papers, also collecting new material that was generated about her life and work in order to make an ever evolving resource available for students and researchers. The collection at Birkbeck also includes books on the science of photography, relating to Dennett’s research into developing alternative darkroom techniques.

[2] Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political Personal and Photographic Autobiography, London: Camden Press, 1986, pp. 134-141.

[3] For example see Jo Spence,  ‘The Sign as a Site of Class Struggle: Reflections on Works by John Heartfield in Patricia Holland, Jo Spence and Simon Watney (eds.), Photography Politics Two, London: Comedia Publishing Group, 1986, pp. 176-186 and Jo Spence and Joan Solomon, What Can a Woman do with a Camera?, London: Scarlet Press, 1995.

[4] See Rosy Martin and Jo Spence ‘Photo Therapy: New Portraits for Old’ in Putting Myself in the Picture, pp. 172-193.

[5] Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p. 116.

[6] Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p. 12.

[7] Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p. 12.

[8] Rosy Martin, ‘The sign as a site of empowerment – in memory of Jo Spence’, Feminist Art News, volume four, number four, 1992.

[9] Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p. 107.

[10] Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p. 134. See also Jo Spence, ‘What Do People Do All Day? Class and Gender in Images of Women’, Screen Education, Winter 1978/79 Number 29, pp. 29-45.

[11] Lynda Nead, ‘Missing Persons/Damaged Lives: Jo Spence in collaboration with Rosy Martin, Ya’acov Khan, David Roberts, Tim Sheard: A Touring exhibition organised by Leeds City Art Galleries’, exhibition booklet, Yorkshire Arts, 1991.

[12] Spence, What can a Woman do with a Camera? p. 92.

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