Jo Spence (1934–1992) emerged as a key figure in the mid 1970s from the British photographic left, crucial in debates on photography and the critique of representation. Her work engaged with a range of photographic genres, from documentary to photo therapy, and responded to the prioritisation from the late 1970s onwards of lens-based media in art-critical discourse.
Rough edged, recycled, personal – in essence positively amateur, Spence’s work stands in direct opposition to numerous artistic givens. She proposed process over object, collaboration and collectivity over heroic authorship and, above all, generosity (to self and other) over the pursuit of any singular creative ambition. While adroit with its arguments, she swerved the academic theorisation of photography, preferring an experimental and biographical exploration of ideas. This resulted in a richly didactic yet highly idiosyncratic output, one that is playful, silly even at times, while also being capable of delivering images of excoriating intensity. Spence held the firm belief that photography has an empowering capacity when applied to complex issues of class, power, gender, health and the body. From this perspective she rallied against all forms of hegemony, dominance and control. Her critical concerns, be they with the idea of naturalism in the documentary image or protocols within the National Health Service, became the primary productive principal for her output, drawing her into action – variably as an artist, writer, activist, community leader, adult educator and patient.
Spence's work has appeared in solo exhibitions at Tate Britain in London; Spotlight Section in London; White Columns in New York; Richard Saltoun in London; Galleria L'Elefante in Treviso, Italy; SPACE in London; Studio Voltaire in London; Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, UK; MACBA in Barcelona, Spain; Camera Austria in Granz; Belfast Exposed Gallery in Ireland; Sans Walk Gallery at Kingsway College in London, UK; The Third Gallery in Aya Osaka, Japan; London and Impressions Gallery in York; Out of the Blue Gallery in Edinburgh; Leeds City Art Gallery; Cambridge Darkroom Gallery; Tin Sheds Gallery at the University of Sydney; and more. She has also shown in a number of group shows internationally, at galleries and museums including Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Tokyo, Japan; Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil; National Portrait Gallery in London, UK; and Centre d’Art de Santa Monica in Barcelona, Spain.
Courtesy of the Studio Voltaire