Long before the arrival of modern-day shape shifters like Photoshop and Facebook, Jo Spence was challenging the way photography can falsify reality by creating perfect lives in a society that actively damages them.
Her primary evidence came from her family album that charted her 1930s beginnings through to her formative years and adulthood but failed to record her poor health and unhappiness, and her struggles to make her way in the world as a woman.
In Beyond a Family Album (1979), currently on show as part of the Wellcome Collection’s Misbehaving Bodies exhibition alongside filmmaker Oreet Ashery’s contemporary exploration of chronic illness, she annotates each image to reveal the truth behind the photographic cliches – cherubic toddler, pouting adolescent, holiday snapshots and so on – saying fiercely: “The wider social, economic and political histories of our disgusting capitalist societies [are] rendered invisible in the family album.”
Another major work, A Picture of Health, put together between 1982 and 1986, took her into further anti-establishment territory as she documented her response to the “shut up, we know best” attitude of doctors following her diagnosis with cancer.
The results are raw and often unsettling, just as Spence had intended, but always interesting. Born in London in 1934 to working class parents, she became drawn to photography through her job as a short hand typist at a high street photographer’s. After taking a training course with Kodak and working for a while in the industry, she opened up a small studio in Hampstead in 1967 specialising in weddings, family groups and baby photos.
But tiring of what she describes as “fantasy land”, she followed her anarchic instincts and moved into social documentary photography, eventually joining feminist outfit Hackney Flashers as she evolved a new photographic practice that would make use of text, collage and role play. In one shot she reclines naked on a sofa in a familiarly suggestive pose but with her glasses still on. “Nudes don’t wear glasses,” she writes. “In this way I wouldn’t be a sex object.”
The same confrontational black humour is all over the Picture of Health photomontage series about illness and orthodox medicine’s view of the body as a battlefield. One image shows her topless, staring at the camera with ‘Property of Jo Spence?’ scribbled in black marker pen on her left breast – the one a doctor told her would be removed as part of her cancer treatment. “As he referred to his notes, without introduction he bent over me and began to ink a cross onto the area of flesh above my left breast,” she explains. “I heard him tell me that my left breast would have to be removed. Equally I heard myself answer no.”
After establishing that she has rights over her own body, she embarks on an alternative health regime comprising acupuncture, qigong and Chinese traditional medicine and reports that she has never felt better after a lifetime of chronic ailments and depression. While she acknowledges that she will not cure herself of the disease, she is more than happy to be successfully managing it, free from the “misery of nausea and healing from wounds”.
She died a decade later in 1992 but continued in her art as she had begun, documenting her final days in a hospice (Final Project, 1991-92). An absorbing Arena documentary from the 1980s shown as part of the exhibition reveals a likeable, ordinary-looking woman with extraordinary ideas, who had at last achieved equilibrium in her personal and professional life. In effect, we have been accompanying her on her cradle to grave trajectory.
Although clearly of its time in its in-your-face agitprop presentation, Spence’s work continues to resonate. If she were alive today she would be horrified at how photographic conventions surrounding happiness, success and femininity have been reinforced through the ubiquity of digital technology and online platforms. And while she would have heartily welcomed the much more patient-centred approach of modern cancer treatments, she would be dismayed to discover that members of the awkward squad like herself continue to get short shrift from the medical profession.
Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery: Misbehaving Bodies at the Wellcome Collection, Euston Rd NW12BE. Closed January 26 2020
This article first appeared in the Camden Review, November 21 2019