Jo Spence: Fairytales and Photography: Curated by the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive (Birkbeck, University of London) and the Centre for British Photography
‘How do we take a story like Cinderella out of the archives, off the bookshelves, out of the retail stores and attempt to prise out its latent class content? Its political and social uses?’ Jo Spence
Jo Spence (1934- 1992) is a key figure in British photography of the last fifty years. A photographer, writer, educator and photo therapist, her work has proved highly influential on subsequent generations of photographers and writers. Spence began her career as a commercial photographer, specialising in family portraits and wedding photos. Never quite at ease with the title ‘artist’, Spence much preferred the tag 'Cultural Sniper'; she used her camera to shoot and expose issues in wider society. She held the firm belief that photography has an empowering capacity when applied to complex issues of classism, social hierarchy, gender and the body.
Fairy Tales and Photography is curated by Patrizia Di Bello from the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive at Birkbeck, University of London; and James Hyman, Centre for British Photography. It brings together works from these two collections to explore the ways in which the fantasy of the fairy tale informs Spence’s critiques of class and gender, but also the ways in which critical positions can be developed into playful, joyous and transformative collective activities
The exhibition takes as its starting point Jo Spence's epic thesis Fairytales and Photography. Or, Another Look at Cinderella (1982), which she wrote while a mature student on a photography course. In this, Spence asks ‘How do we take a story like Cinderella out of the archives, off the bookshelves, out of the retail stores and attempt to prise out its latent class content? Its political and social uses?’ Her approach draws on her politics as a socialist feminist to inform her enquiry, untangling the gender and class oppressions interconnected in these historic tales. Entwined within this work are performative self-portraits juxtaposed with documentation of the Princess Diana media frenzy in the run up to the Royal Wedding, the commercialization of love and marriage, and the imagery through which little girls are indoctrinated into patriarchal structures. Spence encourages women young and old to stop ‘waiting for their prince’, advocating instead the use of photography as a tool of personal and social transformation to break open the myths around which class and femininity are constructed.
This exhibition, as with Spence's dissertation, ‘brings together subjects, both personal and political, that she grappled with throughout her life: social class, family histories, sexuality, representation of women and visual ideologies. Her work drew on her own lived experience of being a woman from a working-class background, her battles with cancer, mental health, education and her family history, but throughout she was always socially minded, with an eye on the structures of power that shape our lives’ (Frances Hatherley, Class Slippers).
Spence continued working on the connections between class and gender, fantasy and reality, history and the present, in her many collaborative projects including the Photo Therapy work she developed with Rosy Martin, to explore, amongst other things, her impostor-syndrome and sense of guilt associated with her own journey from working class to ‘cultural worker’.
In the series Only When I Go to Fifty Did I Realise I Was Cinderella (1984) these are complicated by the challenges of confronting middle age and illness. In one of the panels, Spence poses in the ‘Fairy Godmother’ outfit she wore at her fiftieth birthday party, embracing and questionings her own powers to ‘transform others’ as well as herself through her work. As an alternative to traditional portraiture, Photo Therapy aims to challenge notions of a single or true self, promote self-acceptance ‘through recognition and release of anxiety’, make feelings visible and ‘reclaim women’s pleasure in looking’ (Jo Spence and Rosy Martin, ‘Portraiture / Photo Therapy’).
The exhibition is accompanied by two publications, available at the Centre’s Bookshop: a beautiful facsimile of Spence’s thesis Fairytales and Photography. Or, Another Look at Cinderella (1982) and Class Slippers: Jo Spence on Fantasy, Photography & Fairytales (2022) with essays by Francis Hatherley and Marina Warner (RRB Photobooks/Hyman Collection).
Synthetic Documents: Jo Spence’s “self” portraiture, from The Faces Group to the PolysnappersWORKSHOP ORGANISED BY BIRKBECK, UNIVERSITY OF LONDON 11 Mar 2023WORKSHOP ORGANISED BY BIRKBECK, UNIVERSITY of london VENUE: CENTRE FOR BRITISH PHOTOGRAPHY The photographer Jo Spence (1934 – 1992) is closely associated with the radical London left of the 1970s and 1980s and particularly feminist politics. The phrase “the personal is political,” often deployed to summarise some of the aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement, invokes the idea of self-representation as a primary political goal, but what does 'the personal” mean in a context of collective political organisation and art production? This workshop invites participants to take a long view...