Jo Spence

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Jo Spence (15 June 1934, London – 24 June 1992, London) was a British photographer, a writer, cultural worker, and a photo therapist. She began her career in the field of commercial photography but soon started her own agency which specialised in family portraits, and wedding photos.[1] In the 1970s, she refocused her work towards documentary photography.[2] Many of her works were self-portraits about her own fight with breast cancer.[1] She depicted her various stages of breast cancer to subvert the notion of an idealized female form.[3] During her prolific photography practice, she became known for her politicized approach to her art form, with socialist and feminist themes throughout her career.[1]


Jo Spence was born on 15 June 1934 in London to working class parents.[4] She started off as a wedding photographer and ran a studio from 1967–1974. Soon afterwards, she began documentary work in the early 1970s, motivated by her political concerns. Both a socialist and feminist, she worked to represent these issues through her practice of photography. She was involved in setting up Photography Workshop (1974), a group focused on education and publishing, along with the socialist historian of photography Terry Dennett[5] and Camerawork magazine (1976). She was also a founding member of the Hackney Flashers (1974), a collective of broadly feminist and socialist women who produced exhibitions such as 'Women and Work' and 'Who's Holding the Baby'.[4]

In 1979, Spence studied the theory and practice of photography at the Polytechnic of Central London with photo theorist Victor Burgin. She gained a first class Honours Degree and changed her previous opinions and ways about photography. During the late 1970s and into the early 1980s her work became more focused on themes of domesticity and family life.[5] In a companion piece for Beyond the Family Album, Public Images, Private Conventions she wrote on how she wished to examine, "the question of who represents who in society, how they do it and for what purpose."[6]

In 1982, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After her diagnosis, Spence started to focus on identity, subjectivity, mental and physical health. She rejected conventional therapy and explored holistic therapy and the personal and feminist political dimension of living with cancer.[7] During her tenure as a photographer, she maintained a career as an educator, writer, and broadcaster. She later died in London on May 1992 from leukemia.[1] Terry Dennett, who was a former collaborator and friend of Spence, is currently the curator of Jo Spence Memorial Archive.[1]


Further reading[edit]

Jo Spence: The Final Project. Louisa Lee, editor. Ridinghouse. 2013. ISBN 978-1-905464-81-4

Putting Myself in the Picture: a Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography. Frances Borzello, editor. Camden Press. 1986. ISBN 0-948491-14-0

Cultural Sniping: The Art of Transgression. Jo Stanley, editor. Routledge.1995. ISBN 0-415-08883-6

The Photograph. Graham Clarke. Oxford University Press. pp. 139–140 (from the series The Oxford History of Art), 1997 ISBN 0-19-284200-5, ISBN 978-0-19-284200-8

Seizing the Light. Robert Hirsch. McGraw Hill. 1999. ISBN 978-0-697-14361-7

Photography View: Turning the Lens Inward. Charles Hagen, The New York Times, Sept.22, 1991 (Arts)

"Nature Versus Culture" in The Nude: A New Perspective, pp. 91–115. Gill Saunders. Cambridge: Harper & Row, 1989 ISBN 0-06-430189-3


  1. ^ a b c d e "Jo Spence Biography". Jo Spence Official Website. Retrieved 1 February 2014.
  2. ^ Spence, Jo (1988). Putting Myself in the Picture. Seattle: The Real Comet Press. p. 48. ISBN 0-941104-38-9.
  3. ^ Kathy., Battista, (2013). Renegotiating the body : feminist art in 1970s London. London: I.B. Tauris. ISBN 9781848859616. OCLC 747008395.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  4. ^ a b "Jo Spence Collection". Archives Hub. Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  5. ^ a b Watney, Simon (Spring 1986). "Jo Spence". History Workshop. Oxford University Press (21): 211.
  6. ^ Spence, Jo (1979). Three Perspectives on Photography. Arts Council of Great Britain. p. 60.
  7. ^ Art and feminism. Reckitt, Helena., Phelan, Peggy. London: Phaidon. 2001. ISBN 9780714847023. OCLC 48098625.CS1 maint: others (link)

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Bell, Susan E. (1 January 2002). "Photo Images: Jo Spence's Narratives of Living with Illness" (PDF). Health. 6 (1): 5–30. doi:10.1177/136345930200600102. Retrieved 1 March 2017.