Exhibition for the Arnolfini Bristol: Jo Spence. From Fairytales to Phototherapy. Photographs from the Hyman Collection.

Arnolfini present a major retrospective of the work of photographer Jo Spence (1934 - 1992), drawn from The Hyman Collection, one of the most comprehensive collections of Spence's works in the world.

Spence has been an integral figure within photographic discourse from the 1970s onwards. Throughout her diverse projects she is well known for her highly politicised approach to photography and the representation of her own struggles with cancer.

From Fairy Tales to Phototherapy focuses on the intersection between arts, health and wellbeing, celebrating Spence's work as a photo therapist in which she used photography as a medium to address personal trauma, reflecting on key moments in her past. Photo-therapy, especially the type of re-enactment therapy that is at the heart of Spence's practice, is essentially a collaborative process and the exhibition presents works made by Spence in collaboration with Terry Dennett, Rosy Martin, David Roberts, Dr Tim Sheard and Valerie Walkerdine.

This will be the first time that her thesis will be exhibited and published in its entirety. Entitled Fairy Tales and Photographyor, another look at Cinderella, this was a pivotal document, created at a crucial point in Spence's career. The exhibition will focus on the actual small-scale photographs that Spence used in her photo-therapy sessions as well as the laminate panels that she used for her workshops and touring exhibitions.

From Fairy Tales to Phototherapy charts Spence's diagnosis and treatment for cancer, juxtaposing humour with inevitable challenging issues. Themes include Cinderella and Fairytales, Remodelling Photo History/Medical History, Childhood Child and Parent Relationships, Libido/Sexuality/Marriage, The Grotesque.

The exhibition is curated by Keiko Higashi, Engagement Producer at Arnolfini, with Dr. Frances Hatherley, writer, researcher and archivist at the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive at Birkbeck, University of London.

About Jo Spence

Jo Spence (1934 - 1992) started her career assisting commercial photographers before quickly establishing her own agency specialising in weddings, family portraiture and actor portfolios. Her early experiences led her to an acute understanding of the mechanics of photography from the practical to more theoretical considerations. The early seventies saw Spence's work shift towards a more interrogative and critical documentary mode which articulated a desire to create photographs that run counter to the idealised imagery offered by advertising.

Alongside a prolific photographic practice, Spence maintained a career as an educator, writer, organiser and broadcaster. For Spence, photography should be informative, and it should be noted that her emergence as a photographer paralleled an increasingly politicised art world.

Following a diagnosis with breast cancer much of Spence's subsequent work was a response to her treatment by the medical establishment and her attempt to navigate its authority through alternative therapies.

In 1984, alongside Rosy Martin, Spence developed 'Photo-Therapy', adopting techniques from co-counselling to invert the traditional relationship between the photographer and the subject. If historically the subject had little control over their own representation, Photo-Therapy shifts this dynamic enabling them to act out personal narratives and claim agency for their own biography.

In 1990, after returning from work commitments abroad, Spence was diagnosed with leukaemia, an illness that would claim her life in 1992. Up until her final moments Spence was still probing at the potential of photography to articulate the 'unrepresentable'.

Her practice illustrates a way to connect her own intimacies and traumas to a broader public discourse. Affirmation, for Spence was about visibility and autonomy - to say what you want to, when you want to.

October 15, 2020
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