Mirror Mirror - Portrait 33
Jo Spence (1934-92)
Colour print, 409 x 285mm (1618 x 1114")
National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG P849)
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 auto-biography, 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.)