Jo Spence

Photo Therapy, (1984-86) Jo Spence in collaboration with Rosy Martin Copyright the Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery

Photo Therapy, (1984-86) Jo Spence in collaboration with Rosy Martin Copyright the Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery

 

The work of Jo Spence, British photographer, educator and writer (1934 – 1992) is the focus for Stills Gallery’s summer exhibition. Curated by Ben Harman, the exhibition presents a powerful and important collection of Jo Spence’s work from her documentary work and collaborative projects to her self exploratory portraiture.

From Stills exhibition introduction:

‘Typically working in collaboration with individuals or groups, using the camera as a tool to empower herself and others, Jo Spence explored how photography can represent, frame and construct reality. She worked tirelessly to address issues such as class, family, sexuality, illness and death and made a hugely influential contribution to photographic practice and debates around the politics of representation.’

 

Children’s Educational Work , 1973-75 Jo Spence in collaboration with Terry Dennett Installation view at Stills, Edinburgh, 2016 Courtesy the Estate of Jo Spence and Richard Saltoun Gallery Photo © Alan Dimmick

Children’s Educational Work , 1973-75 Jo Spence in collaboration with Terry Dennett Installation view at Stills, Edinburgh, 2016 Courtesy the Estate of Jo Spence and Richard Saltoun Gallery Photo © Alan Dimmick

 

Children’s Educational Work , 1973-75 Jo Spence in collaboration with Terry Dennett Installation view at Stills, Edinburgh, 2016 Courtesy the Estate of Jo Spence and Richard Saltoun Gallery Photo © Alan Dimmick

Children’s Educational Work , 1973-75 Jo Spence in collaboration with Terry Dennett Installation view at Stills, Edinburgh, 2016 Courtesy the Estate of Jo Spence and Richard Saltoun Gallery Photo © Alan Dimmick

 

The exhibition is divided into three sections

  • Children’s Educational Work (1973-75) Documentary work from her long term collaboration with Terry Dennett including images from Children Photographed, Adventure Playgrounds and The Secret World of Children.
  • Self Portraits (1978-92) Jo’s challenging and powerful self exploratory images made in collaboration with others and including photographs about her breast cancer diagnosis.
  • The Polysnappers (1981) A rare collection of panels from the degree show work Family, Fantasy and Photography by the collaborative group formed when Jo Spence was a student.

 


Document Scotland were kindly given the opportunity to speak to Ben Harman Director of Stills Gallery and curator of this exhibition, Mary-Ann Kennedy lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University and a member of the Polysnappers who worked with Jo in the 1980s and Malcolm Dickson Director of Street level Photoworks who curated an exhibition of Jo’s work in Glasgow in 2005.

We asked Ben, Mary Ann and Malcolm about their experiences working with Jo, creating work collaboratively, curating exhibitions in Scotland and why her work is important, and ever relevant in 2016.

We hope you enjoy the images and interviews. Do catch the exhibition at Stills if you can, it’s on until 16th October 2016 and one not to miss this Festival.

 


 

Document Scotland: Ben, what attracted you to curate this exhibition of Jo Spence’s work at Stills Gallery in Scotland at this time?

Ben Harman: In my previous job as Curator of Contemporary Art for Glasgow Museums I was regularly in touch with Terry Dennett from the Jo Spence Memorial Archive in London and I included Jo’s work in several exhibitions at GoMA between 2004 and 2013. Glasgow Museums had acquired work from Jo in about 1990, towards the end of her life. As far as I’m aware, it was the first public collection in the UK to do so.

Jo has been represented in themed group exhibitions at Stills in the past but a solo show in Edinburgh seemed long overdue. The timing of our display is largely due to our interest in presenting her work during the Edinburgh Art Festival at a time of year when we typically receive our highest audience figures. During last year’s festival, our exhibition of work by kennardphillipps was incredibly well received and so for 2016 we wanted to offer something similarly concerned with how photography can alter and inform our experiences of the social and political issues of our time.

Jo Spence installation view at Stills, Edinburgh, 2016. Courtesy the Estate of Jo Spence and Richard Saltoun Gallery Photo © Alan Dimmick

Jo Spence installation view at Stills, Edinburgh, 2016. Courtesy the Estate of Jo Spence and Richard Saltoun Gallery Photo © Alan Dimmick

 

DS: Malcolm, in 2005, along with Terry Dennet of the Jo Spence Memorial Archive, you curated the exhibition ‘Jo Spence : Photographer – Works from the Archive’ at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow. Can you tell us a little about that exhibition.

Malcolm Dickson: Jo was, of course, a pioneer in photographic practices but also a prolific writer, teacher and cultural worker across the board. What appealed to us was the inspiring combination of an oppositional stance with an exploratory and playful spirit. She also had a salient position in terms of the subject which is never talked about – Class! Jo believed that everyday life is the source of all meaningful art – photography is a tool that can be used by everyone in any situation for self-knowledge, personal growth and of course social critique.

The exhibition at Street Level covered three decades – some from her early high street studio work in the mid 70s; works from the mid-80s on self-image, class and health; and the ‘Final Project’ in the 90s, in which we presented 15 newly produced and framed prints which illustrated her allegorical approach in still lives.

A wall also contained wallpapered posters from collectives she helped establish – Photography Workshop, Half Moon, Camerawork, the Hackney Flashers and the Polysnappers. We also had available a number of copies of Photography Politics which she co-edited with Terry.

 

DS: Ben, why did you focus on the particular elements of Jo Spence’s work you’ve gathered together for this exhibition at Stills?

BH: We wanted to find a way of presenting work that Jo is well-known for as well as material that hasn’t been seen in Scotland before. In this way the exhibition might serve as a point of interest for those that are familiar with her work as well as an introductory overview for those that are not.

Past exhibitions in Scotland, such as at Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow in 2005, have covered much of the ‘Final Project’, her last series made in collaboration with Terry Dennett, so we are only exhibiting two works from that series.

The term ‘Self Portraits’ is a bit inadequate in relation to Jo’s work which was always in collaboration with others but we found this to be a useful umbrella title under which to show examples from a variety of her projects and collaborations from the late 1970s onwards. These are presented in our front gallery.

The photographs from Children’s Educational Work has been available as research material but is very rarely seen. I felt it was important for this to be on display as it provides a fascinating background to Jo’s later work and shows where she wanted to take photography at a time when she had become completely disillusioned with her commercial photography business.

The Polysnappers material is quite simply unique and has not been on public display on this scale since 1981. The group were formed at the Polytechnic of Central London, where Jo had enrolled as a mature student in 1979, and Family, Fantasy & Photography was their final degree show. At the core of this work is a concern with the politics of representation. For the inclusion of this work I have to thank Mary Ann Kennedy who was a member of The Polysnappers (along with Jo Spence, Charlotte Pembrey and Jane Munro) and is based in Edinburgh.

 

Family, Fantasy & Photography, (1981) by The Polysnappers Installation view at Stills, Edinburgh, 2016 Courtesy Mary Ann Kennedy, Jane Munro, Charlotte Pembrey and Jo Spence Photo © Alan Dimmick

Family, Fantasy & Photography, (1981) by The Polysnappers Installation view at Stills, Edinburgh, 2016 Courtesy Mary Ann Kennedy, Jane Munro, Charlotte Pembrey and Jo Spence Photo © Alan Dimmick

 

Family, Fantasy & Photography, (1981) by The Polysnappers. Installation view at Stills, Edinburgh, 2016. Courtesy Mary Ann Kennedy, Jane Munro, Charlotte Pembrey and Jo Spence Photo © Alan Dimmick.

Family, Fantasy & Photography, (1981) by The Polysnappers. Installation view at Stills, Edinburgh, 2016. Courtesy Mary Ann Kennedy, Jane Munro, Charlotte Pembrey and Jo Spence Photo © Alan Dimmick.

 

DS: Speaking of the Polysnappers, Mary Ann – in this exhibition at Stills we see a large (and rare) display of panels produced in 1981 by ‘The Polysnappers’ a group which you were a part of  – could you tell us a little about who they were and how/why they came about?

Mary-Ann Kennedy: I was a photography student at the then polytechnic of central London with a determination to work collaboratively whenever possible and a commitment to education and visual literacy. Charlotte, Jane and I had been working together when Jo joined the poly in our second year.  By the end of that year we formed the Polysnappers to address the politics of representation, visual literacy and the responsibilities of the image maker within an educational format – the travelling exhibition- that was accessible to a wide audience.

 

DS: What was the focus of your work as a group?

MAK: ‘Three Perspectives on Photography’ opened at the Hayward Gallery in 1979*, Community arts was beginning to embrace the use of photography, predominantly in its documentary format. Media education was interrogating film, TV and advertising but not the production and use of the photograph. We felt there was a space to visually work through the role photography plays in the formation of identities, in our understanding of the world and our place/position within it – and to make visible the personal as political.

Photography is a communicative tool, great for telling stories – as image makers we were concerned with the paucity of stories told, the voices silenced, and how photography too often colluded in those absences.

(* The Hayward Gallery’s first exhibition of photography described as “groundbreaking” by Gloria Chalmers in Portfolio Magazine)

 

DS: What was your experience of working collaboratively?

MAK: As with all collectives – we debated (argued!) but we found, acknowledged and worked to our individual strengths.  My memory may be of continual exhaustion but our depth of engagement and production level was only possible through collaboration.  We were able to push each other, network beyond our imagining as well well as learn new skills.  It was quite magic!

 

DS: What do you feel is the relevance and importance of showing this work in 2016?

MAK: The work was exhibited by the Cockpit Community arts project  for over 10 years but it has formed the basis of over 30 years teaching in higher education for me.  It may have been nostalgic for me to see it exhibited in a ‘retrospective’ –  I was rather concerned about how ‘dated’ it would look.  But it has been a salutary lesson in the response of, particularly, young women – the recognition that far too little has changed.  If the work is resonating with the current wave of feminism – a wider, more inclusive reflection on the role that photography plays in lived experience, then I’m indebted to Ben for showing it.

MD: The exhibition at Stills is a critical re-evaluation of Jo’s work and hones in on certain key material largely unseen since its original production – the collection from the Polysnappers for example; the original photographs from the studio portrait days and early days of Photography Workshop. It combines all the elements of Jo’s practice as a visual artist, activist, and educationalist very well and these elements are vital components in helping the public and younger artists to understand the inextricable link between them in a ‘practice’

 

Image credit: Various poster works, 1979 – 1995, Jo Spence. Courtesy Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow & Terry Dennett

Image credit: Various poster works, 1979 – 1995, Jo Spence. Courtesy Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow & Terry Dennett

 

DS: Ben, what was the reason to include only a small collection of Jo’s documentary work from the 1970’s in this current exhibition?

BH: It was important to have a representative balance of work in the exhibition so I didn’t want the content to be weighted too much in any one direction. However, Jo was extremely prolific and any one series or aspect of her work, such as this, could easily be drawn out for an exhibition in itself. There is also the practical reason that much of the documentary material from the 1970s is unframed and this has an affect on exhibition design and related costs.

I hope that each of the three sections of our exhibition offer enough of a taster to encourage visitors to go away and find out more about Jo’s work and ideas. A few comments have been made referring to our exhibition as a ‘retrospective’ which is flattering but far from the truth. Our presentation is really just the tip of the iceberg but the work must be seen!

In a note from Jo to Terry Dennett, discovered after her death in 1992, she quoted Woody Guthrie: “When I am gone don’t mourn – organise.”

 

Jo Spence, Adventure Playgrounds: Photographing housing communities and children’s playgrounds (1973-1975). Copyright the Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery

Jo Spence, Adventure Playgrounds: Photographing housing communities and children’s playgrounds (1973-1975). Image © Copyright the Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery

 

DS: What do you feel is the relevance and importance of showing Jo’s work in 2016. How is the show being received?

BH: We are 1 month into the exhibition and we are on track to have one of our busiest exhibitions on record. This is partly due to the enduring influence, importance and relevance of Jo’s work and ideas. The issues of class, illness, ageing, sexuality, family and gender politics that she addressed have not gone away. Her development of the Photo Therapy technique (with Rosy Martin) and her use of the camera as a tool to empower herself and others and to construct her own image seems to have anticipated contemporary trends.

MD: Although ten years apart, I think the recent show at Stills and the earlier one at Street Level have given substantial representation of Jo’s practice, and provided understanding of the convergence of political and artistic concerns that index community photography to all subsequent socially engaged practices in British Art.

I first met Jo in 1990 when she came to Glasgow and did a talk through the Free University of Glasgow that I was involved in at the time. She contributed an article around her book ‘Cultural Sniping’ to the relaunched Variant and her image was on the cover. The purchases made by Glasgow Museums of her work are very important in keeping her work circulating – Ben was an advocate of that in his previous role and it’s really satisfying to see that coming through in this excellent exhibition at Stills.

 

Jo Spence, Contact Sheet - Gypsies, Vintage Gelatin Silver Print, 1974 © Jo Spence & Terry Dennett image courtesy of Hyman Collection, London

Jo Spence, Contact Sheet – Gypsies, Vintage Gelatin Silver Print, 1974 Image © Copyright the Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Hyman Collection, London

 

Jo Spence, Contact Sheet - Gypsies, Vintage Gelatin Silver Print, 1974 © Jo Spence & Terry Dennett image courtesy of Hyman Collection, London

Jo Spence, Contact Sheet – Gypsies, Vintage Gelatin Silver Print, 1974 Image © Copyright the Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Hyman Collection, London

 

 

 

Many thanks to Malcolm, Ben and Mary Ann for speaking with us. Generous thanks also to Terry Dennett, The Jo Spence Memorial Archive & The Hyman Collection.

The Jo Spence exhibition is on at Stills Gallery, Cockburn Street, Edinburgh until 16th October 2016.

Further Resources:

 

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Portrait Salon exhibition January 2014

Following on from the success of the Document Scotland Portrait Salon event at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh – we are delighted that the first ever printed Portrait Salon exhibition will take place from January 10th 2014 at new venue FUSE Art Space in Bradford.

The exhibition features a cross section of the best contemporary portrait photographers from around the world and, we’re very pleased to say,  includes an image by Document Scotland’s Sophie Gerrard.

Sophie’s image was taken in Yangon, Myanmar last year.

“This photograph was taken one morning very early whist going for a walk around the colonial areas of Yangon, Myanmar. As I’ve seen in many asian cities, locals get up early, avoiding the heat of the day, and do their exercises in public. In Yangon was no different, I was there during the monsoon, it was incredibly hot and humid, early morning breezes were a lucky catch first thing in the day, and most people made for the water front. People’s exercises weren’t restricted to parks and open spaces in this part of town, many people simply found a spot on the pavement, set down their radio and started their routines. This man completely ignored me as a took a few frames with my medium format camera. I sought eye contact the whole time, with a smile ready and a gesture to ask – can I take your photo? But he stared straight ahead, never moving his head, transfixed on a point in the distance, slowly lifting and bending his legs, one after the other, listening to the crackling and high pitched squealing music coming out of his radio.”

 

A man does his morning exercises at 5am, with his radio through the streets of downtown Yangon, Myanmar.  © Sophie Gerrard, all rights reserved.

A man does his morning exercises at 5am, with his radio in downtown Yangon, Myanmar.
© Sophie Gerrard, all rights reserved.

 

“Just shortly after taking this peaceful image, after walking a little further, I came across a group of elderly women doing tai chi on an overpass over a busy main road, whilst busy commuter buses trundled past underneath, belching out black fumes. They smiled and waved at me as I took their pictures. Everyone had a smile, even as another bus roared past and we all coughed away the fumes. The squeaky little radio kept singing, and the old ladies kept moving. Funny place to do Tai Chi I thought. Funny place to take photographs they might have thought.”

Tai Chi on an overpass in downtown Yangon © Sophie Gerrard all rights reserved

Tai Chi on an overpass in downtown Yangon
© Sophie Gerrard all rights reserved

Early morning exercises on Inya Lake, Yangon, Myanmar © Sophie Gerrard all rights reserved

Early morning exercises on Inya Lake, Yangon, Myanmar
© Sophie Gerrard all rights reserved

 

Portrait Salon 2013 at Fuse

Opening party: Friday 10th January 2014, 7pm
Exhibition: 10th January 2014 – 8th March 2014
Artist talk: Saturday 15th February 2014, 3pm

Almost 1,000 images from 330 photographers were entered into Portrait Salon 2013, with the final 42 images chosen by three judges: photographer Abbie Trayler-Smith, Harry Hardie from HERE Press, and Jim Stephenson from Miniclick Talks. The result is a fascinating illustration of the diverse challenges associated with good portraiture.

 

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Document Scotland Summer Salon 2013

A full crowd at the Document Scotland Summer Salon event, Stills Gallery, Edinburgh

A full crowd at the Document Scotland Summer Salon event, Stills Gallery, Edinburgh

 

Edinburgh during the festival is a lively place, full of energy, excitement and a melting pot of ideas, inspiration and passion. What better reason to invite friends and colleagues to an evening of Scottish photography, multimedia and conversation at Stills Gallery, Scotland’s centre for photography in the heart of the city. All of us at Document Scotland would like to extend a huge thank you to all of you who came along and helped make the night such a success.

We were also delighted and honoured to be joined by Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs. Thank you for coming Fiona, and your kind words about the work.

Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert and Colin McPherson talk to Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, at the Document Scotland Summer Salon event at Stills Gallery, Edinburgh.

 

Stephen McLaren welcomed us all, and the evening kicked off with Jeremy’s new, and as yet unseen multimedia work on the Scottish Borders Common Ridings. A fascinating glimpse into a world of tradition, ritual and history (and a follow on from his work on the subject started in 2000 which you can read about here.)

Next up was Tom Kidd’s stunning black and white work from 1970’s Shetland, more of which can be seen here. Tom was there to answer a few questions for us and tell us a little about his experiences of photographing there. It was great you could join us, thanks Tom.

 

Tom Kidd with members of the audience.

 

Sophie Gerrard talks to Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop.

 

We then went to our first Glasgow story of the evening, Chris Leslie’s evocative Red Road Underground which tells the story of the unique Brig bar, a hidden underground bingo hall underneath the now demolished Red Road flats in Glasgow. Chris’ ability to transport us to that place through the voices of those who frequented there led to an interesting conversation about legacy, regeneration and memory. We’re really glad you could join us Chris and tell us more about your work.

 

Chris Leslie talks to the audience about his project The Glasgow Renaissance.

 

Gemma Oven’s “Skeklers” documents an ancient the lost tradition of Skekling from the Shetland isles through photography, film and reconstruction. We featured this work by Gemma on the blog back in March this year after finding learning about her project that she undertook as a student at the City of Glasgow College. We were very pleased that Gemma was able to join us last night and answer a few questions about the ancient tradition and her experience of recreating it. Take a read of the blog piece to see more of Gemma’s pictures and watch the film.

 

Gemma Ovens tells the crowd more about her work “Skeklers”.

 

Colin McPherson was up next with his new work, “Avenue” – a work in progress which is in the very early stages and looks at the street in which he grew up in. Colin talked us through his idea for the work, his motivation and where he planned to take the project. As it’s so new, we don’t have a link for this project, but please do watch this space, Colin will be updating us all as it progresses and as the work continues – we can’t wait to see more Colin.

 

Colin McPherson presents his new work to the audience

 

The second Glasgow project of the evening was work by Hugh Hood. His photography website is here. We watched a slideshow of 1974 Glasgow images set to music. Documenting  vanishing Glasgow neighbourhoods. It’s a poignant project and one we’ve featured on the Document Scotland blog – take a read here.

 

The audience at the Document Scotland Summer Salon event at Stills Gallery, Edinburgh

 

Last up – and for desert as Stephen put it, was Sophie’s piece on Tunnocks and the Scottish institution that is Mr Boyd Tunnock – some call him a modern day Willy Wonka, others call him Mr Tea Cake. Having always wanted to get inside that wonderful factory and see how it worked, Sophie was given the opportunity earlier this year and the resulting film and photographs were published, you can see them here.

 

What remains to be said is a huge big thank you from all of us. Thank you to Evan and his team at Stills for hosting us and making us feel so welcome, thank you to Neil from Beyond Words for being there with an ever fantastic collection of books and publications for sale, thank you to our wonderful guest contributing photographers showing work alongside us namely Chris Leslie, Gemma Ovens, Tom Kidd and Hugh Hood. Thank you to Fiona Hyslop, for joining us and thank you most of all to our wonderful audience for turning up in such numbers and making this night such a success.

 

Here’s to you all, and to the next Salon event!

The four founding members of Document Scotland (l-r Colin McPherson, Sophie Gerrard, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert & Stephen McLaren)
outside Colin McPherson’s childhood home in Edinburgh.

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Summer Salon, 23.08.13

Well friends, autumn approaches, but never let it be said that Document Scotland gives in so easily. We’ve decided to have a summer party. Or to give it a grand name, we’re having a Summer Salon.

Yep, on Friday August 23rd, during the Edinburgh festival, we’re having a Salon evening event to showcase Scottish photography and multimedia, to get people together and to toast the good times of summer. The event will be held at Stills Gallery, Cockburn Street, Edinburgh, from 6.30pm-8.30pm. And apparently we have to be out the door sharp from the Gallery, but there is a hostelry next door that we can relax in and continue our discussions.

Showing multi-media stills photography work on the evening, covering a variety of topics, will be Gemma Ovens, Chris Leslie, Colin McPherson, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, Sophie Gerrard, Tom Kidd and Hugh Hood. There will also be book stall with some latest book titles, with our good friend Neil from Beyond Words. Stephen McLaren is flying in from California to be our MC for the evening.

Due to capacity limitations at Stills we are only allowed to admit 50 people maximum, and already approximately half that number is accounted for, so we’re opening out an invite to 20 more other souls who’d like to join us.

If you would like to attend, and please remember attendance will be limited, email your name and details to Stephen@DocumentScotland.com, he is the bouncer, the man with the Guest List. And please, we’re sorry, but only email if you will definitely come, space is limited unfortunately, as much as we’d love to have an open door for everyone.

We hope you can make it, and we look forward to the chat.

Dress code is casual.

 

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