Staring Death In The Face – Jo Spence: From Fairy Tales To Phototherapy

On a recent trip to Bristol I was introduced to the Arnolfini, the main contemporary arts centre and gallery in the city. On the day of my visit a number of exhibitions were taking place, including A Picture Of Health: Women Photographers From The Hyman Collection and Jo Spence: From Fairy Tales To Phototherapy. 

I was particularly keen to go because of the emphasis on Photo Therapy, developed by the late Jo Spence – with the assistance of her friend and collaborator Rosy Martin, and her partner Terry Dennett.

Both shows feature Spence’s work, with A Picture Of Health also including pieces by Rosy Martin (in collaboration with Verity Welstead) as well as work by Heather Agyepong, Sonia Boyce, Eliza Hatch, Susan Hiller, Rose Finn-Kelcey, Anna Fox, Rosy, Polly Penrose, and Paloma Tendero. 

In terms of Photo Therapy proper, Rosy Martin’s contribution to the group show used the method to explore her role as carer to her dementia-suffering mother. In ‘I didn’t put myself down for sainthood’, taken in collaboration with Verity Welstead, Martin appears theatrically in poses of piety, grief, divine protection, and devotion. In one photograph she’s draped in a blue sheet like the Virgin Mary, looking up into the air, arms open and loose at her sides with the palms up – a stance of submission unto god or something like it, an echo of religious art.

Alt Text: The artist, Rosy Martin, strikes various theatrical poses dressed, alternatively, like the Virgin Mary and as an angel. Her expressions are exaggerated. Martin is an older white lady with long grey hair. The backgrounds are grey and the photographs are arranged in a pyramid shape.
‘I didn’t put myself down for sainthood’, Rosy Martin (in collaboration with Verity Welstead), 2018

The text explains. “Martin’s work examines the ambivalence that she felt about caring for her mother during her long illness of multi-infarct dementia. ‘I didn’t put myself down for sainthood’ refers to something that Martin said to one of her mother’s drop-in carers.”

It goes on to quote Martin herself, saying, “The psychosis that can accompany dementia required a ‘being with’, acceptance, infinite patience, tolerance and emotional holding. Such a life lesson, so very hard and yet in another way, so necessary and easy. It was a strange gift, but still a gift, to learn another kind of loving.”

Through the photographs we can see Martin processing her anger and exhaustion with her role, as well as the genuine sense of commitment that it must have taken to provide the care for her mother anyway. This is Photo Therapy in action – a person literally processing their feelings in front of you through the medium of photography.

But Martin’s work is only a glimpse into what awaits the interested viewer upstairs. Jo Spence: From Fairy Tales To Phototherapy takes up almost twice the space as A Picture Of Health: Women Photographers From The Hyman Collection. The comprehensive exhibition covers three decades of Spence’s work, with all the pieces coming from the private collection of Claire and James Hyman – an oral surgeon and an art dealer who own over three thousand artworks and who have concentrated, in the last fifteen or so years, on photography. In terms of Spence’s work they own several hundred items, including exhibition prints, contact prints, photographs, albums, and – weirdly – Spence’s own copy of her undergraduate dissertation from art college.

It is here we see Spence’s thought process on the healing power of photography develop. ‘Only When I Got to Fifty Did I Realise I was Cinderella (03)’, the work featured on the physical flyer, finds Spence holding up a piece of paper with the words “How do I give up RESPONSIBILITIES without being ILL?” – her face grim. Around the photograph words have been written, as she unpacks her feelings. It’s therapy in action. In the work she questions whether she should do less and stay well, but neglect her art, or push herself and then be put in a position of needing to be looked after. You can imagine her staring into her own eyes as she scribbles down these thoughts, returning again and again to her photographic image and trying to work out what responsibility she has to herself.

Part of Photo Therapy, for Spence, was turning the camera on herself and using it to process past trauma. Instead of being a merely a subject of someone else’s gaze, self-portraiture – as well as trusting the camera to those who she knew intimately, like Dennett or Martin – allowed her to be radically vulnerable.

I had actually seen some of her work before, at Stills photography gallery in Edinburgh in the October of 2016. At the time I remember being moved by the way she candidly addressed her breast cancer, her aging body, and her mortality.

An uncomfortable quirk of photography is that it brings questions of human mortality and our relationship with death to the forefront. The relationship between photography and death is a thread running through Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida – required reading for anyone interested in the metaphysics of photography – written as he mourns the death of his mother. At one point he tries to explain how images of her as a child bring him such grief when if the image were shown to a stranger they would elicit no such reaction. At one point he talks of Alexander Gardner’s ‘Portrait of Lewis Payne’ from 1865 – a man awaiting execution. He writes, “Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the stadium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose, the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder… over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”

Alt text: A black and white photograph of Lewis Payne, a young American Confederate soldier who was involved in the assignation of President Lincoln. Here he is waiting to be hung, staring past the photographer, Alexander Gardner, with a look that could be interpreted as resignation or despair.  He wears a thin jumper and trousers, with his hands manacled in front of him, leaning his back on the metal wall of the prison warship.
‘Portrait of Lewis Payne’, Alexander Gardner, 1865 sourced from the Library of Congress

Looking into Spence’s eyes – and she tends to stare directly into the camera, confrontationally – you see a woman who is dead and also who is going to die. Someone taken by cancer, asking you to consider what dying from breast cancer means. Asking herself to consider it.

It’s a profound and uncomfortable tension, even aside from the feminist concerns she explores in many of the works. There she is pretending to breastfeed Dennett, failing to relax in the bath – her arm over her stomach protectively, then peering out of the bathtub with binoculars into a fishbowl lens, scrubbing the floor… the curators have also thoughtfully provided copies of Spare Rib feminist magazine for us to read, Spence screaming out of the cover of the February 1986 edition.

The rawness of her anger and grief still manages to shock me. How must Dennett have felt, when she actually died? He spent the next few decades cataloguing and preserving her work. It pains me to think of him holding her image in his hands, seeing her passionate humanity frozen on the paper.

And Martin, still using the techniques they developed together…

Jo Spence: From Fairytales To Phototherapy runs from 18 May – 20 June 2021. A Picture of Health: Women Photographers From The Hyman Collection runs until 13 June 2021. Both take place at the Arnolfini in Bristol and entrance is free. 


Words & Exhibition Images: Ana Hine and Luke Cockayne

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