Middle-class values made her sick
Saturday 6th August 2016
Go and see the exhibition of Jo Spence’s agitational images at Tate Britain, says CHRISTINE LINDEY, and you’ll get a glimpse of a subversive, class-conscious image maker
A BLACK-AND-WHITE photograph in Tate Britain’s display of Jo Spence’s work shows a middle-aged woman with a broom in the doorway of a run-down house with two milk bottles on the step.
Surely, an archetypal documentary photograph of working-class life? But, hold on, this is no ordinary “housewife.”
She is naked from the waist up, barefoot, her brush broom belongs to a distant era and, as in early photography, the image is tinted. Created collaboratively with the historian-photographer Terry Dennett, it subverts photojournalism’s naturalism and challenges the sexism of idealised, bare-breasted women in the mass media.
Influenced by Dziga Vertov, Bertholt Brecht and John Heartfield, Spence and Dennett had co-founded the Photography Workshop Ltd in 1974 to develop critical uses and forms of documentary photography.
They reordered and reinvented images of everyday life, “made strange” through non-naturalistic techniques of theatrically staged events, photo-montage or added text, to provoke criticism of socio-political norms.
Their workshop was also an independent educational and research resource which staged travelling exhibitions about labour history and taught photography and feminism to the community. It was their engagement with politically conscious workers at the Ford car plant in Dagenham which led some workers to photograph meetings and dangerous working conditions as an organisational tool.
A war child, Jo Spence (1934-1992) was born to trade-unionist factory workers and went to secretarial college at the age of 15. She worked as a general dogsbody for commercial photographers and then as a photographer of weddings and portraits.
But through discovering Marxism and feminism, she questioned the genres’ dishonesty, idealisation and commodification and the photography profession’s individualism and began her lifelong commitment to collaboration.
In 1975 she joined the Hackney Flashers, a local socialist-feminist collective of women writers, cartoonists and photographers. They engaged with issues relevant to the local community through discussions, posters, exhibitions and political agitation.
Their 1975 exhibition Women and Work exposed exploitation, shocking pay inequalities and rates of pay. Who’s Holding the Baby? in 1978 called for men to share child-rearing and domestic work, by querying the gender inequality of the double work-load shouldered by working mothers.
The Tate’s display of fascinating archival material includes photographs, posters and texts from these touring exhibitions and a screen projection of 24 slides from their educational pack Domestic Labour and Visual Representation of 1980.
They mixed researched sociological and statistical information, documentary photographs, cartoons, slogans and photomontages which juxtaposed photographs of real women’s stressed lives with the patronising, glamourised la-la land of advertisements. They incited participation with practical campaigns like calls for nurseries and used slogans such as “All Workers are Exploited, Some More than Others,” “There is Hope for Change so We’ve Got to Fight” and “If All Women Went on Strike our Society Would Grind to a Halt.”
Spence’s last collaborative venture was co-founding Polysnappers, a women’s collective which staged colour photographs contesting consumerism and conventional representations of families.
In one, Spence cradles a vacuum cleaner like a besotted Madonna gazing at her child. Another parodies adverting’s appropriation of eroticism by entwining the vacuum cleaner’s hose around the leg of woman wearing fishnet tights and red stilettos.
Spence reluctantly accepted the art world’s usefulness as a means of reaching a wide public but preferred to define herself as a “cultural worker” or “educational photographer” rather than as an artist.
Her main commitment was to women and the community and she never lost her anger at social injustice, nor her working-class consciousness. One of her last photographs, staged when she was terminally ill, was of herself holding a placard which reads: “Middle Class Values Make Me Sick.”
As one of several free BP Spotlight displays, rather than a dedicated exhibition, this work is unpublicised and Spence would no doubt have been angered, but not surprised, at this manipulation of her work by the multinational to give itself a benign image. Tucked behind a signpost for David Hockney’s portraits, her display is modest in scale and difficult to find.
Spence was among the 1970s artists to expand the boundaries of the visual arts to include photography, performance and sociological research, which is currently enjoying a revival among the millennial generation who reject the superficial fame-and-fortune aesthetics of the 1990s. The display does at least provide an introduction to her work but surely the Tate could have devoted more space and funding to this influential artist?
As I left the gallery, I saw a lone parent bottle-feeding a baby. That this parent was a man is now a common sight but in the 1970s and 1980s this was rarely seen, if at all. The immeasurable improvement in gender relations shows that inventive political art alongside direct activism can engender social change.
Jo Spence, Spotlight Display, runs at Tate Britain in London until the autumn. Opening times: tate.org.uk.