Jo Spence: From Fairy Tales to Phototherapy

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This article is produced in partnership with Bristol Photo Festival 2021: A Sense of Place, a city-wide international photo festival taking place from May to October 2021.

Spence’s previously unpublished thesis is the starting point for a new retrospective of her work

In the late 1970s, Jo Spence (1934-1992) was studying at the Polytechnic of Central London. Spence’s final year coincided with the lead up to Diana and the Prince of Wales’ wedding. Partly inspired by the frenzy surrounding the event, her thesis untangles how interconnected gender and class oppressions run through the fairytale Cinderella, and, in turn, all historic fairy tales. But, it also explores how these narratives translate into contemporary manifestations: advertisements, magazines, fiction and society at large. Indeed, the work asks: ‘How do we take a story like Cinderella out of the archives, off the bookshelves, out of the retail stores and attempt to prize out its latent class content? Its political and social uses?’ 

The thesis would lay the foundation for many of the politically and socially motivated projects that Spence would go on to create. And now, it is a central focus of Jo Spence: From Fairy Tales to Phototherapy – a retrospective currently on show at the Arnolfini, as part of Bristol Photo Festival. The show coincides with a publication of Spence’s work, which includes a reproduction of her university thesis, complete with notes and annotations. Including over 100 photographs, the exhibition explores subjects that are addressed in the thesis, and those that weave through her other projects too, such as class, gender, grief, childhood, family, and education. 

Only When I Got to Fifty Did I Realise I was Cinderella, (03). 1984. Jo Spence in collaboration with Rosy Martin © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive, Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, Canada.

A timeline of Spence’s life opens the exhibition, offering visitors context and chronology. However, the show is far from sequential. Instead, the featured images and accompanying texts offer audiences the space to unravel the many themes that run through the artist’s work, and develop connections between them – something that Spence did herself, reworking and combining images throughout her career to generate new meanings. Quotes also punctuate the photographs, ensuring that: “[Spence’s] voice is still heard in the exhibition,” as Keiko Higashi, one of the exhibition’s curators, explains. 

The exhibition was a collaborative endeavour, co-curated by Higashi, The Hyman Collection, and Dr Frances Hatherley. Higashi also collaborated with members of the wider community, including mental health and creative writing cancer recovery groups, to incorporate their reflections into the final exhibition and give them space to develop personal relationships with the work. “We wanted to broaden the conversation to include voices from our community who are facing similar experiences to Spence,” says Higashi.

The show itself comprises projects that attest to Spence’s collaborative way of working. The artist conceived one of the first series exhibited, Remodelling Photo History, (1982) (also known as The History Lesson) together with the social historian, photographer, and her then-partner Terry Dennett. The pair met in 1973 at the Children’s Rights Workshop in Brixton and would go on to work together for over 20 years. Simultaneously political and humorous (a common feature throughout Spence’s oeuvre), the series subverts the documentary genre and comprises Spence and Dennett’s reworkings of traditional photographs from a working-class and feminist perspective. Spence features heavily as a subject throughout, a method that would remain central to her practice.  

Remodelling Photo History. 1982. Jo Spence in collaboration with Terry Dennett. All images by Jo Spence © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive, Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, Canada.
Photo therapy: Narratives of Dis-ease (Exciled) (set of 5 works). 1989. Jo Spence in collaboration with Dr Tim Sheard © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive, Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto, Canada.

Not long after making Remodelling Photo History, Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer, and much of her following work would relate to this. The exhibition’s main gallery houses one of her most significant series in this vein: Photo Therapy (1984-88). The project is again collaborative, and this time made alongside the artist Rosy Martin. Together, the pair would develop a new photographic practice that centres upon therapeutic re-enactment to deconstruct facets of oneself and society at large. The process involved Spence and Martin discussing a session’s focus, planning images, shooting, and later reflecting on what was created. 

Photographs from several of these phototherapy sessions are also on show. These confront various themes, including Spence’s illness, traumas around eating, family (particularly her mother), class, and gender. Echoing many of the same sentiments tackled in Spence’s thesis, which provided a starting point for the show’s inception, the exhibition thereby opens up the artist’s work to new interpretations. Far from didactic, From Fairy Tales to Phototherapy endeavours to present elements of Spence’s oeuvre in a way that allows audiences to draw individual conclusions. But also to discover themes and experiences that resonate with them. Indeed, Spence’s projects, and the subjects addressed in them, feel as urgent and relevant today as they did when she first made them. 

Jo Spence – Fairy Tales and Photography, or, another look at Cinderella is published by RRB Photobooks / The Hyman Collection.
Jo Spence: From Fairy Tales to Phototherapy | Photographs from the Hyman Collection is on show at the Arnolfini, Bristol, until 20 June 2021.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.