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Jo Spence

© Terry Dennett

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Jo Spence

by Jo Spence
colour print, 1990
16 1/8 in. x 11 1/4 in. (409 mm x 285 mm)
Given by Fay Godwin, 1993
Primary Collection
NPG P849

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982, Spence developed her own system of self-medication which included 'photo-therapy' sessions. In this self-portrait, Spence confronts us as grotesque, her face behind a hag-like mask. She is both scary and comic. The photograph was originally the central image in a triptych used for a poster that advertised the exhibition Missing Persons/Damaged Lives at Leeds City Art Gallery in 1991.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Rideal, Liz, Mirror Mirror: Self-portraits by Women Artists, 2001 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 September 2001 to 20 January 2002), p. 103 Read entry

    Born Joan Patricia Clode to working-class parents in London, Jo Spence left school for secretarial college aged thirteen. She started work when she was fifteen and from 1951 to 1962 was secretary at a commercial photography studio in Finchley Road. This led her to join the Hampstead Camera Club. After a short-lived marriage in 1965, she went to Ireland with Neil Spence, whose name she adopted, and on her return she set up a studio in Hampstead, Joanna Spence Associates, which specialised in portraiture, weddings and actors' portfolios. In 1972 Spence helped set up the Children's Rights Workshop and with an Arts Council grant produced her exhibition Children Photographed.

    In 1974 she met the photographer and alternative educationalist Terry Dennett (b.1938), and together they set up the independent teaching organisation Photography Workshop Ltd (1974-92), which was responsible for helping to initiate a number of projects including the Hackney Flashers Women's Photography Group that created two important photo-projects, 'Women and Work' and 'Who's Holding the Baby?' In 1979 she participated in the Hayward Gallery exhibition Three Perspectives on Photography. In 1982, with Dennett, she produced Remodelling Photo History. That same year she gained First Class Honours in the Theory and Practice of Photography at the Polytechnic of Central London, and in November was diagnosed with breast cancer. This crisis provoked Spence to develop her own self-medication, which included the use of photography as a therapeutic alternative to drugs. From 1983 she collaborated with the photographer Rosy Martin (b.1946), and together they coined the term 'phototherapy'. Spence's autobiography, Putting Myself in the Picture (1986), describes phototherapy as meaning 'quite literally, using photography to heal ourselves'. Her final book, Cultural Sniping: The Art of Transgression, was edited and published posthumously in 1995. Her work is now held in the Jo Spence Memorial Archive, London.

    Spence went on to collaborate with various people including her partner David Roberts, whom she later married. This portrait emerged from a 1989 phototherapy session with Dr Tim Sheard from the Bristol Cancer Help Centre. It was originally the central image in a triptych used for the poster that advertised the exhibition Missing Persons/Damaged Lives at Leeds City Art Gallery in 1991. In the photograph Spence confronts us, appearing grotesque, her face behind a hag-like mask. Armed with a dagger and a shield, she is both scary and comic. The inclusion of an assortment of chocolates undercuts a more sombre interpretation of the work and refers to eating obsessions. 'She challenged the myth of the body beautiful, while acknowledging its power. Admitting her terror, she confronted the phantasmagoria of disease.' (Obituary, Independent, 25 June 1992.)

  • Rideal, Liz, Insights: Self-portraits, 2005, p. 71 Read entry

    Spence’s self-portrait is confrontational: she appears deliberately grotesque, her face hidden behind a hag-like mask. Armed with a knife and a shield, she is both frightening and comical: the inclusion of chocolates is a further surreal element. Spence’s work was political, investigative and often collaborative. Seen as a feminist, she would parody and rarely flatter the female form in her art. She pioneered what she called ‘Phototherapy’, a method of photographic visualisation that she used in her fright against breast cancer; she eventually succumbed to the disease at the age of fifty-eight.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 579

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1990back to top

Current affairs

Margaret Thatcher introduces a Poll Tax. 'The Community Charge' replaced the old 'Rates' system of local taxation based on the value of property in favour of a flat rate for all householders. With little difference between the tax burden of the poor and the wealthy, opposition was bitter and violent. Following a challenge to her leadership Thatcher stood down as Prime Minister and was replaced by John Major.

Art and science

Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web. He created the first web-browser and editor, and the first web-server in 1990, building the first website and putting it online in 1991. By making his ideas royalty-free, Berners-Lee made the Internet accessible to all and allowed all users to help build its content.
British beef is banned from schools and hospitals over concerns about BSE ('mad cow disease').


The Gulf War breaks out between Iraq and US-led coalition forces. War was declared after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and, following a period of UN economic sanctions against Iraq, hostilities commenced in January 1991. The coalition victory was swift and within three months Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait.
Nelson Mandella is released from Prison after 27 years captivity.

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