Jo Spence (1934–1992) emerged as a key figure in British photography in the mid-1970s. Engaging with a range of photographic genres, from commercial to documentary and photo therapy, Spence took a unique approach to the camera, swerving academic theories and embracing a model based on experimentation and personal experience. Launching as part of Saltoun Online, Richard Saltoun Gallery's new series of online exhibitions featuring gallery represented artists, Jo SPENCE: Photo Therapy features work from the artist's series of the same name, including never-before-seen photographs released for the first time.
Though more widely known as an activist, feminist and social photographer, Spence began her career as a commercial photographer. Weddings, family portraits and baby photos were her mainstay, opening her eyes to how images are encoded with performance and value – the staging of the beautiful bride, perfect family and angelic children. Through her 'Photo Therapy' series, first developed in collaboration with Rosy Martin, Spence sought to understand how photographs operate in the construction of age, class, identity, notions of beauty and identity. Drawing on her experience of co-counselling, psychodrama and therapy, these works allowed Spence to work through her own personal histories and traumas; her feelings of being infantilised; her mother and feelings of abandonment; her relationship with her body and the idealised female form; and her emotional roots to patterns of eating. She later used photo therapy as a tool to document her fight against cancer.
Photo therapy presented new forms of representation that allowed for multiple, fragmented selves and a tool for Spence to deal with the multi-faceted nature of being. The central question became: how can individuals–namely children, women and the working class–use photography to represent themselves and take control of their own visual narratives? Spence's 'Photo Therapy' series further extended her lifelong interrogation and decoding of sexuality, family and class, whilst highlighting her rejection of artistic givens, favouring process over object and collaboration over sole ownership. Several collaborative works are on show as part of this online presentation. Spence continued collaborating with others, including the psychotherapist Dr Tim Sheard and artist Valerie Walkerdine as well as her artistic and romantic partner Terry Dennett, until her death in 1992.
The online presentation will be hosted on Ocula as well as the gallery's website, accompanied by a 3D version featuring audio clips and a guided tour of works on show by gallery director Niamh Coghlan. A video of Patrizia di Bello, co-director of the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre at Birkbeck, University of London, and Professor in the History of Art Department, together with George Vasey, Curator at the Wellcome Collection and co-curator of the recent exhibition 'Misbehaving Bodies: Jo Spence and Oreet Ashrey,' is also available to view.
Press release courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery.