– Autumn/Winter 2016

The Kind of Pictures She Would Have Taken: Jo Spence

Anne Boyer

Jo Spence, The Final Project, 1991–92, photograph. All images © the estate of Jo Spence and courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery

In Terry Dennett’s 1992 portrait of Jo Spence in her hospice bed, Spence – whose photographs often depict her own robust, middle-aged, working-class body – is gaunt, big-eyed, dressed in a hospital gown, covered by a simple patchwork quilt and propped up on pillows. She does not, as she did in so many of her self-portraits, play. She stares straight into the camera, skeletal. The way she looks is a surprise.

  1. Jo Spence, Cultural Sniping: The Art of Transgression (ed. Jo Stanley), London: Routledge, 1995, p.227.

  2. 'Leukaemia proved a difficult illness to depict. She did not look ill in the early stages, just pale and interesting, she remarked. Two attempts to photograph herself in the graveyard resulted in emotional upset and discarded pictures.’ Terry Dennett, ‘The Wounded Photographer: The Genesis of Jo Spence’s Camera Therapy’, Afterimage, vol.29, no.3, 2001, p.26.

  3. J. Spence, Cultural Sniping, op. cit., p.222.

  4. Ibid., p.96.

  5. Ibid., p.216.

  6. Ibid., p.125.

  7. 'Now that I have leukaemia, the language that worked with breast cancer doesn’t seem applicable.’ Ibid., p.215.

  8. Ibid., p.217.

  9. Describing her breast cancer work, Spence later said: ‘I think to some extent I abused myself: I was so anxious to be useful that I exploited myself in some ways.’ Ibid., p.212.

  10. Ibid., p.217. Emphasis in the original.

  11. 'The situation for dissident cancer patients is not the same as it is for people with AIDS. There is no groundswell of loving dissidents surrounding cancer patients.’ Ibid., p.214.

  12. Johanna Hedva, ‘Sick Woman Theory’, Mask Magazine [online magazine], no.24, January 2016, available at http://www.maskmagazine.com/not-again/struggle/sick-woman-theory (last accessed on 27 July 2016).

  13. J. Spence, Cultural Sniping, op. cit., p.122.

  14. The commentary in a recent piece on the death of Kathy Acker from breast cancer in 1997 illustrates this phenomenon of attributing to those who die of breast cancer a death wish: ‘Ira Silverberg, who had, at various times, been Acker’s publicist, agent and publisher, was certain she wanted to die. “It was her exit strategy”, he says. “She was no longer as successful as she had been. Many friends had abandoned her. She wanted out.”’ Jason McBride, ‘Last Days of Kathy Acker’, Hazlitt [online journal], 28 July 2015, available at http://hazlitt.net/feature/last-days-kathy-acker (last accessed on 27 July 2016). ‘Some people’, writes Spence, ‘have theorised that cancer is just another form of slow suicide.’ J. Spence, Cultural Sniping, op. cit., p.123.

  15. Ibid., p.146.