The visit took place at the Stills Gallery in Edinburgh, led by tutor Wendy McMurdo. Wendy had arranged for gallery director Ben Harman to give a brief introduction to the exhibition. In the event Ben stayed for most of the morning giving an excellent commentary on the curation and history of Spence’s work.
Before the visit I had done a bit of research on Jo Spence and had formed a kind of affinity with her as a person. Jo was a political activist and feminist who challenged the “norms” of gender, sexuality, immigration and inequalities in the 1980s.
Jo Spence on the front of Spare Rib magazine.
Through her diverse analytical documentary projects including her own struggle with cancer, the exhibition confirms for me what I had perceived in my research. The exhibition was divided into one of her last works of self-portraiture which includes photo therapy (a technique she developed with Rosy Martin to work through personal issues of sexuality, family and class), her early work in the 1970s in her Children’s Educational Workshops, developed with collaborator Terry Dennett. and a section entitled “The Polysnappers” which was a collaborative work with fellow students Mary Ann Kennedy, Jane Munro and Charlotte Pembrey called Family, Fantasy and Photography for their degree show. This work has been unseen for 35 years.
The exhibition was raw, powerful and impressive. It was superbly curated and a credit to the gallery for bringing together the work of this important social documentary photographer. Skye Sherman in her column in The Guardian describes Spence’s work, “As raw as a scraped shin” and I think this sums it up perfectly for me. It hurts, makes us feel uncomfortable and sorry (for ourselves and maybe for others too).
Spence using plastic skeleton’s in a humerous way in her Final Project series
My affinity with Spence began by recognising in her many of the women I knew in the 80s who were also challenging the accepted norms and stereotypes in society. As a social science graduate of the 1990s, I also identified with the struggle to challenge those norms documented in the exhibition. I was particularly looking forward to the Children’s Educational Workshops she led.
It was in fact The Polysnappers that really stood out for me a pictorial documentary using both original photographs of Spence and her fellow students alongside contemporary newspaper cuttings and advertisements. In this post-feminism era this work is important in reminding us how far life has changed for women and those with different sexual persuasions but reminds us how things have remained very much the same for many sections of society. Although, some things may have changed it is important that we remember how things used to be and how things haven’t changed much e.g. for the young, those who are disadvantaged and living in challenging circumstances, and immigrants. Many of the topics depicted in Family, Fantasy and Photography can still be seen making headlines in todays newspapers.
In my view this work should not be lost and should be on permanent display somewhere.