View of “Jo Spence,” 2012. Studio Voltaire.

View of “Jo Spence,” 2012. Studio Voltaire.

Jo Spence

Space/Studio Voltaire

View of “Jo Spence,” 2012. Studio Voltaire.

Jo Spence rejected the term “artist,” preferring to describe herself as a “photographer” or “cultural sniper.” This skepticism toward the art world was reflected in her distinctive modes of practice, the alternative networks via which her work circulated, and the unusual trajectory of her career. The catalogue for this two-part show characterized Spence’s aesthetic as “rough edged, recycled, personal—in essence positively amateur,” yet her works were far from dilettante dabblings, being so fundamental to the daily existence of their maker. Rather, Spence’s production was characterized by a patent indifference to the market and an emphasis on the use-value of photography—as document, political statement, educational device, and therapeutic tool.

“Work (Part I),” at SPACE, focused on Spence’s career from the 1960s to the early ’80s, while “Work (Part II),” at Studio Voltaire, considered her practice from then until her death in 1992. Centrally located in each gallery was a table for discussion or reading, equipped with books on Spence, photographic theory, radical theater, and the British Left. Laminated photographs and texts were pinned to freestanding display panels arranged around these resource hubs, echoing the campaigning circuits and educational sites where Spence’s work was initially shown.

At SPACE, the exhibition mapped Spence’s transition from photographer’s secretary and occasional assistant to commercial portraitist, documentary photographer, educator, activist, and mature student in Victor Burgin’s theory-driven course at the Polytechnic of Central London. The exhibition made no distinction between these divergent bodies of work, with photography presented as a mode of labor and a critical tool for its analysis. As part of the Hackney Flashers collective, Spence photographed women at work inside and outside the home, juxtaposing the resulting documents with media images, newspaper articles, and political statements. This project culminated in “Women and Work,” 1975, an exhibition highlighting women’s unrecognized contribution to the economy, which toured colleges, libraries, and community centers in the UK and abroad. At SPACE, selections from that exhibition were flanked by the documentary series “Untitled (Gypsies and Travelers),” 1974, and the more analytic “Remodeling Photo History,” 1980–82—both produced with Spence’s former partner and collaborator Terry Dennett, now curator of the Jo Spence Memorial Archive.

Spence’s diagnosis of breast cancer in 1982 prompted a crisis in her photographic practice, and the exhibition at Studio Voltaire opened with her pivotal series “The Picture of Health?,” 1982–86. Here, she captured the painful disjunction between the theories of photographic representation in which she had been immersed, and the blunt facticity of her diseased body, which, she realized, was not “an image, or an idea, or a psychic structure.” Stunned by her helplessness in the face of medical authority, Spence began to photograph her treatment, the hospital, and its staff, exposing multifarious divisions of labor and power within the ailing National Health Service. She subsequently rejected conventional medicine, exploring a range of alternative therapies and mobilizing photography as a cathartic tool. In collaboration with Rosy Martin, Spence developed a form of “photo therapy,” combining the skills she had learned as a photographer with therapeutic techniques to work through her experiences of illness, familial conflict, emotional eating, and sexuality. In Infantilization, 1984, Spence externalized the feelings of regression engendered by her hospitalization by posing in a baby’s bonnet and sucking on a pacifier. Rather than simply documenting her illness, such photographs provided a means of processing previously unexpressed emotions. At once funny, heart-wrenching, and unsettling, the series combines intense self-scrutiny with an unswerving belief in the transformative power of photography. In the second room at Studio Voltaire, The Final Project, 1991–92, tackled aging and mortality with a similarly disarming mix of macabre humor and ritualistic faith. In one image, Spence dons a gruesome skeleton mask along with her pendant and handbag, while in another, she floats in a vaporous pool, seemingly at peace. The Final Project concluded the largest exhibition of Spence’s work in the UK since her death, at a moment when her incisive analyses of labor, child care, and health care could not be more pertinent.

Anna Lovatt