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Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Jo Spence: Domesticity, Genre and the History of Photography

                                                    (Image from Jo Spence's Final Project)

One exhibition I'm really looking to this summer is Jo Spence and Orjeet Ashery at the Wellcome Collection in Misbehaving Bodies.

It's an exhibition that '...documents Spence's diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent healthcare regime throughout the 1980s. Her raw and confrontational photography is shown alongside Oreet Ashery’s (b. 1966) award-winning miniseries ‘Revisiting Genesis’, 2016. Ashery’s politically engaged work explores loss and the lived experience of chronic illness in the digital era.'

So there's that, but it also gives me the chance to fanboya bit over Jo Spence, a photographer who is so overdue a major retrospective, dedicated monograph (there isn't one. How unbelievable is that) and primacy of place in British photographic history.

If you're wondering who Jo Spence is, imagine Cindy Sherman, but with her soul laid bare, with everything out on the surface, without the miasma of cultural-economic superstardom to mystify things. Imagine Cindy Sherman, but working-class English and poor and never really cool, enigmatic or successful, engaging with and directly questioning the orthodoxies of art, photography, gender and class. There you go....

For the longest time ever I had difficulty really getting her work. On the one hand, I really like work that disrupts photography and that disrupts the accepted stylistic flickers that we have come to believe make good photography, a meaningful project, a challenging project and all those things that tie in to all those traditonal ideas of what good photography is, all those things that people still, almost without exception, work with. Photography can be critical, but the questioning stops in particular places. There are lots of formulas at play.

On the other side, I love those formulas, I love that tradition of the epic image, the classic photo essay, the wonderful photobook, all of which come pre-packed with certain assumptions and really serve our informational expectations more than anything else. I love that side of photography. Which is a good job really, because try as I might, I don't see that being challenged too much anywhere, especially by people who say they challenge it. Being challenging is a formula. Anyway, enough of that, it's all good.

The great image, the heroic essay, the idealised portrait, the formula, the singular voice, the stylistic mannerism is not  where Jo Spence is coming from. That's what she worked against. She was disruptive and not selectively disruptive.She was a very strange photographer, a photographic polymath who worked against the grain, who got stitched up by photographic communities on various occasions, who doesn't quite fit into some of the histories of photography because... possibly because she was and still is working ahead of her time. 

Essentially, Jo Spence worked in the 1970s and 1980s on projects that looked at how identity was formed by photographs and how identity could be transformed by photographs. She looked at multiple gazes (the familial gaze, the medical gaze, the domestic gaze, the male gaze). She examined ideas of invisible motherhood and unrecognised labour in pursuit of acknowledgement and change. 

She was the most important photographer of the domestic in that sense, working with ideas of collaboration and activism that are still relevant now. Even more contemporary was the way in which she undermined the supremacy of the image. She made pictures that didn't quite fit what a picture should be, that still doesn't quite fit what a picture should be. She was making all those images of the body, of the self, of awkwardness that you see now - the difference being that her images were awkward, were off-kilter, did not conform photographically or subtextually, to a softening visual narrative.

She worked on the history of photography (with Terry Dennett), visualising domestic anthropologies and questioning the history of photography and the ways it reinforced ways of seeing and thinking about women, domesticity, the family, the world. 

Working with portraiture in family albums  she examined how photography and traditional hierarchies of power overlapped, how photography could passively fit into existing class, economic and gender structures and fossilise negative identities, and how photography could be actively used to disrupt those social structures and transform identity.  

Feminism, social justice and questioning of power were central to her work. Her knowledge emerged from practical experience in advertising, wedding, child and social photography, so it wasn't just empty rhetoric. It came from somewhere - and that generic questioning is still a place that very few photographers are willing to go - basically because it kind of destroys the image, and the art, and the marketability. Now she's long-since-dead, Spence's work is eminently marketable. It's disempowered somewhat by that. It's the classic Catch-22 of any art. 

So hers was a very empirical practical where the personal and the political are expressed in a photographic voice rooted in experience and an underlying ideal of the authentic - an idea of the authentic which comes by way of the inauthenticity of the traditional photographic image in all its functional manifestation.

Her curating of images, her disruption of genre and style, her consideration of pose and facial expression in images as a creator (and destroyer) of identity is a forerunner of  Gender Advertisement (Goffman, 1979) and Gender Trouble (Butler, 1990) and is still relevant today. 

Her domestic work connects to the idea of both the domestic interior and the idea of the geography of the home and labour. It also ties to idea of class, sexuality and the spectacle of the body, especially the way in which the female body is portrayed and understood, and the way it has been both commercialised and vilified. There's a melding of the body, home and art that is made from within the domestic space, from within its gendered power boundaries. That is so unusually powerful and connects far more to the conceptual work of artists such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles who examined the hierarchies of domestic labour as well as how change could be affected through art, rather than the purely photographic. 

And then she died. And of course she made work about that, which is what the Wellcome exhibition is all about, with reflections on the body, the self, how that body and self are seen by doctors and hospitals,  and how these are seen and recovered through both the medical gaze and through her ( and Rosy Martin’s) photo-therapeutic approach. 

Read back on what she's done and it reads like a deconstruction of  the functions of photography, with all its histories, its powers and its  knowledges. But he work is also about how genre, voice and Identity overlap with ideas of visual power and  - most importantly - how that power can be undermined.  

We all like to think we undermine power and the like, and many of us do up to a point. But up to a point means up to a point. But Jo Spence, one feels, was a bit of a real deal; in the intensity of her obsession, her exposure of the self, her mass of visual energy, and the anti-photographic nature of her work.

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