It seems only appropriate that my first in-person cultural experience after a year at home and on-line should be a Jo Spence retrospective. At a moment when we are all considering our identities in relation to questions of public and private health, the exhibition Jo Spence: From Fairy Tales to Photo Therapy at Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery is strikingly timely. Spence’s feminist photography is well-known for casting a clear and unflinching gaze on the female, sick body – most famously in her posthumously exhibited and published work The Final Project (1992) in which Spence recorded the experience of Leukaemia which would end her life. The Arnolfini exhibition is the first to place Spence’s better known late self-portraits alongside her earlier works and include large excerpts and images from her thesis “Fairy Tales and Photography… or, another look at Cinderella”. The result is a carefully curated and nuanced display of Spence’s photographic career, which brings context to her late works and presents a more complex understanding of the relationship between health, the body, and social contexts.
Spence’s preoccupation with class identity and consciousness is a central theme of this exhibition, and it provides a fascinating lens through which to view her cancer-related self-portraiture. The exhibition begins with Spence’s 1982 collaboration with Terry Dennett, Remodelling Photo History. In this work, Dennett and Spence developed ‘a form of photo-theatre’, in order to ‘get away from the kind of didacticism which pervades so much of the worthy work on photographic theory, and to provide instead a kind of ‘revolt’ from within the ranks.’[i] This revolt draws on the work of Brecht and Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, by using techniques of spectacle and masquerade in order to explore gender and class identity. Like participants in Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, Spence takes up difference positions and actions in her photographs in this series, in order to embody and reveal forms of subordination associated with the experiences of working class women. The series also addresses the relationship between photographer and subject, as Spence describes:
‘Here we could use non naturalistic modes of representation which allowed us to stage and create a kind of hybrid spectacle whilst drawing upon and disrupting well known genres of photography which have been concerned with the representation of aspects of the female body. In order to do this we have used ourselves as both social actors and photographers because we wanted to problematise and re-work the model/photographer relationship which is generally so one-sided.’[ii]
The result of this staged approach to photo history is a series of images that are at once politically satirical and strikingly intimate. In a pair of black and white photographs entitled Remodelling Photo History (Subordination), Spence juxtaposes two stereotypes of working class femininity. The first image shows Spence naked face-down in front of a car, which is parked in a field next to a sign saying ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’. The image is comical with a biting satirical edge. It nods to socially unacceptable images of women dressing revealingly, drinking excessively and passing out – and pushes these to an extreme by showing Spence completely naked and placing the car in an improbable rural location. The image is open to interpretation. It could equally be understood as pointing to experiences of sexual exploitation and violence – even of kidnapping. The difficulty in attaching a single narrative to the photograph provides a kind of Brechtian jolt which draws the viewer’s gaze to the artificiality and power dynamics of the photo form.
It also provides a profound contrast with the second image, which is a close-up of Spence’s hands as she washes a shirt in a plastic bucket. This second image is intimate: we see the edge of a shirt cuff between her fingers, soap bubbles stuck to the top of her hands. At the top of the image is the corner of a cheap folding chair. Expertly and naturalistically photographed, the second half of Remodelling Photo History (Subordination) would fit in well with traditional photo-journalism chronicling the lives of working class people. It evokes a clear message of the lives of working class women being weighed down by housework and domestic drudgery, whilst also quietly celebrating the implicit care that is taken over the cleaning of the shirt, which is paralleled in the care of the photographer in taking a meticulous image. However, when they are viewed together, the theatricality of the first image primes us to question the second. Who is taking this picture? Why is it framed this way, and what is cut out? Revealing the spectacular nature of photography itself, this pair of images raises important questions about the historic relationship between photographers and working class subjects.
Masquerades and Phototherapy
Working class identity and class discomfort are therefore starting points for Spence’s photo-theatre and remain important throughout her work. In her essay Class Slippers: Jo Spence on Fantasy, Photography and Fairytales, Frances Hatherly emphasises how Spence’s work as a high street photographer shaped her understanding of the role of spectacle in the development of gendered and classed identity, especially in young working class women. ‘In capturing the special moments of people’s lives such as weddings’ writes Hatherly, ‘ – the moments deemed worthy of recording – she saw how people aspired to be seen.’ Spence understood this aspiration, often to a middle class ‘family image’, as having an element of theatricality to it. Reflecting on her own experience inhabiting middle class environments she wrote, ‘I now understand I never assimilated, I only masqueraded.’ [iii]
To masquerade is both to hide and to reveal – to occupy the place of someone or something else in a manner so theatrical that the disguise is obvious. Masquerade evokes the spirit of carnival – a moment in which gender and class boundaries are upturned, only to be revealed again and reinforced the following morning. As Mikhail Bakhtin famously argued, the carnival and the masquerade are social institutions which briefly open up an unbounded sense of community.[iv] We see a preoccupation with the relationship between masquerade and class in Spence’s extended project on images of Cinderella in this exhibition. Spence saw the Cinderella myth performing a regulatory function on gender and class, and revealed the ways in which it was still deeply embedded in the visual culture of the late 1980s. She wrote in her dissertation that ‘Cinderella is alive and well, continuing with the class mythology of romantic love as a means of social mobility for girls.[v]
Building on the theatricality which she had introduced into her early photography, Spence developed the practice of Phototherapy with her collaborator Rosy Martin. In these works Spence occupies a number of positions related to her personal history and experience of womanhood, as well as relating to her cancer diagnosis. Here, the ability to switch roles in the image-making process continues to trouble the photographer-subject relationship and introduces playfulness and introspection into Spence’s works. Some of these works contain aspects of pantomime, as in the series Only when I got to fifty did I realise I was Cinderella, in which nine self portraits (including Spence in a fairy costume) are annotated with questions about health, responsibility and self-transformation.
The Hyman Collection website suggests that this series offers a bridge between Spence’s interest in the Cinderella fairy-tale to her later preoccupation with health. My impression coming out of the exhibition was that there is less of a separation between Spence’s illness work and the earlier work on class, fairy-tales and spectacle than one might think. A decade before the idea that gender is performative became a trope of feminist theory, Spence was creating work that playfully revealed the ways in which visual culture invites us to perform our class and gender in a range of social roles. It is an unflinching awareness of this performance that makes her works on family, fairy-tales and on illness so striking.
[i] Jo Spence, ‘Remodelling Photo History’ (1989)
[ii] Jo Spence, ‘Remodelling Photo History (1989)
[iii] Hatherly, Class Slippers: Jo Spence on Fantasy, Photography and Fairytales (Bristol: RBP Books and The Hyman Collection, 2020) p.13., p.17.
[iv] Mikhail Bakhtin Rabelais and His World, translated by Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington, Ind. : Indiana University Press, 1984)
[v] Hatherly, p.23.