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Updated: Aug 31, 2021

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Anyone who’s written a dissertation will know, you are not entitled to an opinion.

It’s been 5 years since I scrambled together a dissertation in a week for my Ba(Hons) Photography degree at Arts University Bournemouth. Having read it back, I want to rewrite it. Within these painful, correctly-spaced pages; your only voice is as narrator, fact giver, conveying other people’s stories and opinions, quoting other people’s thoughts (generally middle-age white men) with no option to tell your own.

In hindsight, the irony of this is not lost on me, especially as my essay was about trying to find your voice through art. They even told us to call it a ‘big essay’ so that the word ‘dissertation’ didn’t overwhelm us. I didn’t write about all the things I was passionate about, I changed my title/topic a week before the deadline, I wrote about an artist I had zero interest in even researching well, just because my tutors (middle-age white men) said I needed to, this did however allow me to use the word ‘fellatio’ in a semi-relevant context within a formal document, which I thought might be a fun party fact later on.

Also, ‘university Liberty’ was even worse at concentrating, time-keeping and self-belief than this almost-30 version; there wasn’t enough chocolate in the world to bribe me into concentrating! I was far more focused on my social life, and my fear of success, and to be honest I don’t think I even read it the whole way through until recently. I wonder what I might say now, outside the realms of word counts and Harvard referencing, in a world where I not only have my own voice (made louder by my artworks) but the right to bloody well use it… and maybe that is this world, my world.

But for now, here she is, the most valuable essay of my life thus far (I think this is the final version…) my 2015 dissertation, will add the remaining ref photos soon.

I’m currently penning a love-note style essay to Jo Spence, which I’ll post as soon as I’m done gushing and re-remembering that I need to get on and MAKE things to shout about.


Photography: Seeking a voice through the self-portrait

‘We live in a culture which flourishes on the inculcation of inadequacy and shame’ (Spence, 1986. p.140). Here we will examine the self-portrait as an empowering voice for women, through both process and publication, to act against traditions of shamming women, especially in the context of nude imagery. Exploring in particular, the photographic works of Jo Spence, alongside a comparative examination of the works of Francesca Woodman, Carolee Schneemann and India Lawton.

The photographic self-portrait dates back to the experiments by Robert Cornelius in 1839, though often debated, his is noted as the first fixed photograph self-portrait: long before the selfie was a common term and at a time when photography had some sort of mystical aura of fact. Since then, the concept of photographing one’s self has become not only far easier, but embraced by the art world in almost the same way the painted self-portrait has been for centuries. Photographic forms, as with painted self-portraits, have adapted into an expressive outlet – an individual’s own interpretation of themselves or how they would like to outwardly convey themselves. The following will explore the photographic self-portrait as a platform to seek a voice, looking at the works of the aforementioned photographers and their portrayal of identity, disease, therapy, and feminism.

In the grand scheme of photographic history ranging in excess of 200 years, Spence and Woodman appear relatively closely on the timeline, however, they coincide with a period of drastic growth and experimentation across the discipline. With Woodman working from the early 1970s up to her death in 1981, and Spence creating images from the 1970s until her death in 1992 (the latter works of which will be focussed on throughout this discussion). Both women received much of their acclaim and recognition after their unfortunate deaths. While vastly different in aesthetics, both photographers tackle themes of identity, memory, the self and performance in their works, with Spence’s being very clear and simply shot, while Woodman adopts blurred long exposures. Both women are very experimental within their practice, and both appear nude at their own direction of the camera.

Jo Spence was a photographer, phototherapist and art-therapist working from the 1970s. Terry Dennett (2001) explains that Spence was an established photographer known for her revealing self-explorations and cultural activism, dealing often with the issues of class, sex and family. Following her diagnosis of breast cancer in the early 1980s Spence sought to rebel against the harsh treatment on offer from the National Health Service at the time, and opted instead to ‘hand make her cancer survival and camera therapy program’ (Dennett, 2001); this series of events greatly influenced Spence’s later projects, with therapy, death and disease beginning to dominate the themes in her photographs.

Scott (2003) explains that Jo Spence used self-portraiture as a means of self-discovery, and in taking control of the camera she was able to create an empowering investigation into her own situation, class, status and sex, and in doing so, further convey these ideas to a wider audience that she hoped to connect with. As a feminist who felt that she did not match the male notion of femininity, in these years Spence worked to produce projects that can be seen as empowering, through reclaiming herself and taking back her power as a female. Similar to this empowerment, through her feminist beliefs she also strove to be heard not just as a victim of disease, but almost as a soldier fighting against it ‘Spence’s insightful social criticism and search for survival as a dignified person provide us with power’ (Hiroko, 2001). Yet, this raises the question of who does Hiroko’s ‘us’ refer to – the general public, or solely to others who are suffering with diseases too. Perhaps Hiroko is alluding to power in the sense of, like Lawton’s Scars, seizing power over our own situations and histories through the cues offered to us by the photographer’s own bravery.

A literal voice was found for Spence too, through the reviewing of photographs she had previously taken throughout her hospital visits and daily routine; she found that “interrogating the photos seemed to be as revealing as talking to a therapist” (Dennett. 2001). The photographs began to act as triggers for conversation and vocal outlet. This shows that even though the audience of these photographs was her alone, the process of reviewing, re-living and discussing gave her a voice and aided her; lifting her from a dark depression without the costly fees of a professional therapy session. Her methods could be termed a therapy of convenience; adopting the medium of photography which was her career, and a subject that was herself, this meant that the whole process was carried out autonomously or with the help of friends or collaborators, thus avoiding fees and judgement from authority and allowing her to work through her issues and create these photographs under her own control.

In the depths of her depression upon receiving her second cancer diagnosis, Spence sought comfort in researching faiths that celebrate death as a part of life, such as Ancient Egyptian traditions and the Mexican Day of the Dead. It is not hard to comprehend that in a time of desperation such as hers, this was her response. This new outlook provided much foundation for Spence’s later photographic experiments in The Final Project, where she can be seen adopting the visuals of these cultures, such as skulls, and skeletons. She found one particularly appealing belief, wherein an individual lives on through others continuing to speak their name, that they are only ever truly dead when they are no longer thought of and spoken about. This view is supported by one of Spence’s collected quotes (published in The Final Project, 2013), in which George Eliot says that ‘Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them’, Spence wanted to be remembered – to be spoken about, to achieve a voice through others discussing her work. One may even suppose that through writing this, it is a small contribution to Jo Spence’s dying wishes.

In this untitled image (fig.1), featured in her The Final Project book, Spence experiments with the rituals of Egyptian burial and symbolism, adding a pill bottle and photograph of herself as a child. With Ancient Egyptian beliefs relying heavily on a promise of an afterlife and elaborate celebrations of deaths, the imagery is rich and desirable. Though the resulting image may be seen as rather humorous, this was probably not the intention; it is an exploration of death. Spence enacted several pre-visualisations of her own death towards the end of her life, including staging a rehearsal of her funeral so that she could experience it while she was still alive.

Epps (2013) proposes that at the time within Western cultures, there was almost a fight to shock the audience when addressing topics involving death or ideas of mortality, taking away the comfortable and socially appropriate sentiment. Contrary to this Spence disregarded the horrific and gruesome to remain therapeutic creating instead visuals that both conveyed the beauty and the inevitability of death. Epps suggests that with regard to the lasting message within these works, of Spence’s struggles with self-representation ‘Spence is not naïve enough to assume that by creating The Final Project she has the final word’ (Epps, 2013. p84) on how she will be remembered after she is gone. But in itself, the publication of The Final Project was posthumous and in this sense alone, she did at least have an influence on who would create the final word within that. Relative to the need for image-makers to shock, there is a general inclination as a viewer to avoid looking at shocking images of sickness and death, especially as in relation to disease and death there is a habit of artists to focus heavily on the infected or deformed aspect of the sick individual, distancing it away from the body as a whole, to create a statement. Spence however, wanted to be observed as a whole, as a person, she wished that viewers would ‘look at her and recognise her humanity’ and not be reduced to the area of the breast wherein her sickness seemed to dominate her (Scott, 2003. P30). Her aim it seems was not to make a brutal statement about death but to work through her feelings towards her own mortality. Susan Sontag argues that all photos ‘are a “memento mori”. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability’ (Sontag 1979, cited in Epps, 2013). Memento mori (remember to die) reminds us to be aware of our own mortality, in that all things must die. In this sense, Spence allows her collaborators to assist her in capturing her own fading mortality and increasing vulnerability; to serve as a lasting reminder of what she was at that particular time, before she passed away.

The idea of the female nude in the context of the self-portrait can be seen as controversial throughout the history of photography, and even still today, in such a technology fuelled, Snapchat/sexting world, where female nudes are more readily available than ever and the line between art and pornography continues to blur. On the other hand, the nude form allows for a timeless quality within the photographic portrait, while clothing can pin an individual to a certain period in history, which can be misleading; this is particularly evident in Woodman’s works, as she is often displaying herself in old-fashioned clothing for the time. The nude however, allows the subject fluidity in time, Woodman’s nude photographic works could have been made at any point in the last fifty years – with, in most cases, nothing in the background or subject to date the image.

Scott (2003) explains how through a female’s use of self-portraiture they may be accused of vanity, if the viewer develops resentment for the photographer. The nude forces the viewer to not only question the photograph, to ask themselves why the artist is naked, and why should they look at it or care what they have to say, but through this begin to question one’s self (wherein the resentment may begin to occur). Yet through these self-exploratory works a photographer’s own body may become ‘a body politic – a single form representing the concerns and fears of thousands’ a relatable image for those who need something or someone to relate to. Someone that was brave enough to address the issues that others shy away from; in the context of Jo Spence, she discusses the issues of the ‘fears she had to face when facing herself’ (Scott. 2003. p.31) in delving into her own trauma through the photographic outlet and not only viewing it herself, but deciding to broadcast it. With regards to her wish to share her work, within her writings in Putting Myself In The Picture, Jo Spence (1986, p.140) elaborates on her thoughts and plans for making her very personal therapy work public:

I certainly needed to be counselled or in therapy before I released anything into the public world. I also needed to have separated from the work so it no longer has any emotional charge for me when people are critical of it.

She wanted to share the works, but feared that feedback on it may affect her; possibly suggesting that though she desperately wanted to voice herself, she felt she needed to be selective of when she thought that voice was ready to be heard.

Spence’s portraits are arguably far from sexual; her approach is almost factual, descriptive and aesthetically honest. Indeed, within her writings of Putting Myself in the Picture she explains that the breasts are constantly represented in the media and emphasised as ‘our most important asset’ (1986) and that we should learn to address the rest of our bodies not just the dominant portrayal of breasts and typical feminine figures, yet she uses them as a necessary tool to convey her trouble, and show her fight for possession.

In the photograph Property of Jo Spence? (fig.2) the viewer is confronted by a question from the author/photographer, rhetorical or otherwise, which forces one to consider the plight of the subject in the battle for ownership over her own body. While she has a chance to voice her vulnerability in an empowering way, the viewer has the chance to empathise with her as photographer and subject seeking a voice and support at such a time.

When compared to the even earlier works by Carolee Schneemann, particularly the artfilm Fuses in 1967, both Woodman and Spence’s photographs are placed in a different context – perhaps, the context they should be seen in, as not necessarily innocent portrayals of the naked female form, but as contextualised and well voiced comments. MacDonald (2007) explains that Schneemann’s works act as erotic self-portraiture, the defining elements of which include breaking from the governance of the ‘external, potentially misogynistic eye’ and allowing the female body to be shown as ‘a site of pleasure and desire – as something to be celebrated, not merely consumed’ which, arguably, is much on a par with the aims of Spence and Woodman through their nude self-portraits. Yet while Woodman’s works may allude to the erotic and the phallic, there does not seem to be any blatant or controversial screams of sex within the images – this does not appear to be a strong message within her work; whereas Schneemann was strongly criticised for actually displaying herself performing fellatio (and other sexual acts) in her self-portrait style film, with her voice being one of sexual freedom – a very different battle on the side of feminism.

In terms of feminist motives, Schneemann (1997, cited in MacDonald, 2007) felt driven to use herself as the focus of her work, feeling that as a woman she was ‘permitted to be an image but not an image maker creating her own self-image’ and through a desire to rectify this allows herself to become ‘not as sex object, but as willed and erotic subject, commending her own image’ (MacDonald, 2007) through taking control back to the female perspective of the female, not denying a sexual side.

(fig.2) Property of Jo Spence - via Tate

(fig.2) Property of Jo Spence – via Tate

When considering the image Property of Jo Spence? (fig.2) although the photograph is essentially a nude, there is context behind the need to reveal the breasts, a heavy justification, rather than simply a woman naked. In the image, the eye of the witness is drawn to the writing on her breast, rather than focussing on the naked breast; the nude is de-sexualised. The image is well formed and Spence herself seems collected and strong. Even if not aiding the viewer, the work was of particular use to Spence as she took this image into hospital to accompany her in her surgery. It reveals a strength and determination for the possession and right over her own body. Similarly to this, Spence spoke openly of her feelings about how she was treated in hospital, with regards to losing her identity – feeling that she was ‘reduced to my disease, to the part of my body where it was apparently located’ (Spence, 1986. p.138), it was this and a rather unsympathetic encounter with a doctor that lead to fig.3, a reaction to her hospital visit where a doctor came into the room and without introduction or explanation marked a cross on her breast and left again. This image signifies Spence’s first encounters with her cancer battle; with a simple backdrop, stance and attire, Spence successfully communicates her experience and feelings in this self-portrait.

Spence felt secure in the photography world, as it offered her an opportunity to gain a voice that she felt she could not attain within the political or general world. She found that it was an area ‘where I am seen as having some value and sometimes listened to!’ (Spence, 1986. p138), having struggled to express herself and her situation through photography for many years, as well as through her efforts as a political activist.

Fig.3 is presumably a reworking of this hospital snapshot, fig.4, which crudely captures the moment. While both images are listed as collaborative, they are taken by different photographers under Spence’s direction and control. Though one may argue that in fig.3, Spence is not concerned for the aesthetics of the image, but the message alone; as seems to be the case with several of her projects – this ethos is called to question when comparing the two images, the second (fig.3) is clearly staged but also becomes somewhat idealised, one would not be criticised for wondering if they were two different people.

Larson (2003) addresses Francesca Woodman’s work in the context of narcissism, suggesting that until the popularisation of Woodman’s photographs the concept of the male gaze had become a barrier for feminist critique within photography in general. However, through Woodman’s works there was a new possibility created for discussions on representation and subjectivity in relation to narcissism. An expression that until then had become ‘too loaded – too aligned with feminine vanity’ (Larson, 2003) to be considered in such a way by certain critics. Additionally, that such work aids feminism, as through its alternative ‘set of terms’ it ‘breaks the male gaze stranglehold’ (Larson 2003) which had dominated most works of the female body to date.

Nonetheless, the concept of narcissism may be seen as a more influential issue when considering the context of Woodman’s work in relation to her tragic death at twenty-two. Woodman became so obsessed with the notion of recognition and acclaim that she grew more and more depressed and eventually in 1981 (after a failed attempt which resulted in further therapy and further medication) committed suicide. Now, on first inspection, without this context of events, many of Woodman’s photographic works may come across as humorous to the audience. For example, fig.5 she is shown crouched over and covered in what appears to be torn wallpaper. The viewer may question why she has positioned herself in this way, what it may signify, and possibly even find amusement in the fact that this seemingly very random act within the image may have been planned. Consequently, by adding the existing knowledge of her suicide and depression, this image in many ways takes on a new light, one of delicacy and appearance of desperation. The use of added text within the image forces a direct message to the viewer that may not seem to relate to the image in an obvious way, yet the eye is drawn away from the form as a whole to focus on the subject’s hands.

The narcissistic feeling lies not just in relation to her photographing herself, but as well, to the obsession she had with her work being recognised and ultimately ending her own life because she felt like it was not possible, and she would rather leave behind what she had already created.

Janus (2007) praises Woodman’s self-portraits as both poetic and fascinating through her mastering of photography, she suggests that Woodman as a photographer on equal sides of the lens, produces images that act as blatant reminders that ‘femininity is constructed and the power of the naked, female form to reveal as well as evoke desire’ (Janus, 2007), as well as featuring a mass of phallic imagery within the constructed photographs. There is much talk of the sexuality within Woodman’s images, alluding to her desires as a young woman. As far as evoking desire is concerned, it may be hard to always see Woodman as seeking that sort of attention from her much wanted audience – though through her nude images this is an obvious assumption. Through masking her face in a large number of her works, she offers her body up for consideration without her face as an identifying feature – a body, nameless and available for viewing, inspecting and for the viewer to assign their own meaning to. This can also be seen in the way that Woodman often used a friend as a stand-in figure for herself – implying that her interest lies in the power of the image as a whole to portray her message, rather than to portray herself.

As a more contemporary comparison, India Lawton’s Scars project focuses on the destruction of family photographs and self-portraits, through the burning, stabbing, and scratching of physical photographs. The process stems from her mother’s teaching that photographs were something to be treasured, yet she found these images carried too painful a memory of a time that she no longer wished to remember. Through her violent manipulations she shows a total freedom of expression over the images and a therapeutic release. (Lawton, 2014)

Lawton lists both Spence and Woodman under her influencing artists, which establishes both of their wishes of recognition, although posthumously. Like Spence, she said she hoped that her work would not only be of benefit to herself, but through it aid others who may be in similar situations, hoping that “people project themselves onto my images…. and through them, can feel the inner strength to take control and try to move on” (Lawton, 2014). Although the issues she deals with are individual to her, the details of them are kept secret and through the images are open to interpretation, rendering them therefore adaptable to a wider audience to relate to. In this way, although the presence of anger or violence is clear the reasoning behind it is not.

Somehow, for a total freedom of expression, Lawton’s images still seem quite restrained; they remain almost entirely intact, with seemingly well considered elements removed. It almost seems that the eventual aesthetics were too well considered, above perhaps the process itself.

In reference to Spence’s hopes to live on through being mentioned, she not only hoped her work would benefit others for years to come, but also that through helping them, she would continue to be remembered and her voice would live on. In terms of sharing the self-therapy photography works, Spence’s wishes are expressed within The Final Project book (a collection of her works, writings and thoughts, published after her death by her friends) which explains that she hoped that after her death, ‘a contemporary generation of women be enabled to explore and comment on her unpublished work so that her ideas could be kept in the public domain’ (Dennett, 2013. p.9). This indicates that she always intended and hoped for her work to be seen by the public. Did this wish just extend as far as the production of a book Jo Spence: The Final Project which she knew she could trust her friends to finish and publish? It is also important to consider whether this extends as far as to include any negative criticism towards her work – she clearly believed that her projects documenting her working through her own personal issues would be of use to other people (women) and that they were worth discussing, but would she have wished people to challenge her views and methods of working/survival? Surely yes, if such a challenge against her processes may further benefit the future generations of women that she wanted to remember her.

Yet, through her writings in Putting Myself in the Picture Spence discusses that in her self-therapy process the main objective and outcome was ‘learning to speak about my conscious and unconscious history has become part of the healing process which I want to share’ (Spence, 1986, p.140). It is unclear however in this instance, whether she refers to the work itself or the process of working that she wished to share.

While viewing the works we may instinctively judge her somewhat frumpy honest style or start to question the quality of lighting in each series, before digging deeper into the meanings behind what she has captured. It may be essential to consider not the way the images were formed or presented, but why they were made. In fact, when addressing the general aesthetics of Spence’s photographs, with a particular emphasis on the Phototherapy, Final Project and Narratives of Disease projects, it may be construed as pointless to discuss these within the realms of photography at all. From Spence’s point of view this is evidenced in her statement: ‘when you’re as badly damaged as I am, you just want nice things around you’ (Spence 2005, cited in Lee, 2013, p.11), written in relation to her need for a therapeutic outlet. It is also possible that she was not thinking as a photographer at this time, but as a woman who needed a creative outlet to allow her to not just escape from the crippling depression that her cancer inevitably supplied, but also as a way to sort these major issues in a controlled method in which she was accustom to. It may be better to consider them purely as a bi-product of a method of therapy which resembles the art of photography, rather than solely photographs; for what matters, you could argue, is the process, the acting out and working through.

Yet, in making the works public, there is a claim being made that they are worthy of viewing by the public; that they are, if in a gallery, therefore gallery worthy. Ehrlich critiques Spence in his review of her show at the Hayward Gallery, posing ‘Let us not deny Jo Spence her doubts and confusion, but may we ask that she convey them to us in a way that raises them above the level of pure therapy’(Ehrlich,1979. p39). He seems to almost accuse Spence of a selfish or lazy approach to placing her work in the art world, without making it better suited to its eventual environment, ignoring that evidently the work itself may not have functioned as well if it had been produced as ‘high-art’. Though Spence herself, never claimed to be an artist, on the contrary she was forced to defend her work’s presence in the gallery setting. It seems there is a need, in a sense, to make public the private in the context of artists using their medium as a therapeutic means to work through complex issues. To not just create and release a voice in themselves, for themselves, but to broadcast that voice; to be heard by the public or any sort of audience to gain a sort of recognition for their situation and their strength to address it.

Spence’s enthusiasm to share her work with other suffering people can be seen as perhaps her greatest flaw, as it contributed to her health decline and eventual death. In some respects, the art overtook the medicine within the process she had created. But it in itself still stands and serves as a memorial to her. Perhaps, the question that ultimately stands is: did an unsupervised enthusiasm and belief in the power of art forms as therapy ultimately help or hinder Spence? According to Dennett (2001), it was indeed her ambition to share her so called therapy with others, which unfortunately lead to her health demise and eventual death in the early 1990s through neglecting her strict regime of medicines to tour with her work around the world. He does not seem to place any blame on the projects themselves, but her decision to tour with them.

There is almost a sense of irony in an audience’s appreciation of both sets of work, firstly in the case of Woodman, for acknowledging works that in essence, the maker has killed themselves over their lack of recognition. Secondly, with Spence, to continue praising a so called healing work that became too well thought of as an aid to others that its maker became detrimentally involved in making it accessible to others in need. While Woodman, though not surviving to witness the changes her work allowed in the discussion of photography herself, she is credited with facilitating possibilities of new expression for future generations of young women hoping to express themselves through photography, such as Lawton. Similarly, in terms of treatment, Spence’s phototherapy experiments were never intended to heal her, or to remove her from the dangers of cancer, they were instead designed as a coping mechanism which seemed an affective relief structure from many of the traumatic and depressing side-effects of the disease. As a bi-product of this the works now stand alone in their own right serving as a lasting voice of, and memorial to, Jo Spence; for those who wish to remember her, as she wished to be remembered. And although sharing her theories and practice may have proved unfavourable to her health, she paved a way for new developments and the increased respect and accessibility of therapeutic arts in England, as well as across the world.



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