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An Interpretation of

by Jo Spence and Terry Dennett

Dan Foy

BA Hons Photography

Module no.: 10058

Seminar Tutor: Linda Marchant
Word Count: 768
The photograph in question is a black and white portrait of the photographer,
Jo Spence, taken during a collaborative project with her close friend Terry
Dennett, but is essentially a self-portrait. In terms of its internal context,
Spence dominates the right third of the image, despite only half of the subject
being visible within the frame, roughly from her left shoulder to below her left
buttock. Her stance indicates that she is relaxed as she stands in a grassy
field, presumably looking into the distance. Electricity pylons swoop into the
image from the opposite side of the image, and carry the eye out of the
photographʼs depth of field towards an ambiguous town or industrial site on
the horizon. Spence is subtlety lit from one side, and the shadows and tonal
differences emphasize her form in both its natural curves and dimply, wrinkly
imperfections. This is in unsubtle contrast to the dark, geometric lines of the
pylons against the sky. Internally, there is a clear juxtaposition between the
natural and the industrial; however, the purpose of this is unclear without
further insight.

Jo Spence was a socialist, feminist, and British photographer who contracted

breast cancer aged 46, shortly before this photograph was made. Her most
famous body of work, “A Picture of Health?” is a response to her condition,
and to her negative experience within the health system, which she
considered corrupt, probably in part due to her socialist philosophy. She
turned to alternative therapies such as traditional Chinese medicine, and used
photography as a form of therapy in a technique she dubbed ʻphototherapyʼ.

Using this technique, Rosy and I began to work together to give

ourselves (and each other) permission to display 'new' visual
selves to the camera... We created a range of portraits which
were the visual embodiment of our fragmented selves, which still
continue to emerge every time we meet to have a photo therapy
(SPARERIB 1986: 163)1
Considering this new information, the photograph appears to be less, say, a
protest against the scars of industrialism in open landscape, a more of an
inward reflection of Spenceʼs attitude towards the world as a feminist
reminded of her mortality and who has chosen to distance herself from certain
aspects of modern society. The photograph is a portrait of a nude female, but
is without so much as a nod toward, for instance, fine renaissance art or soft
pornography. Her sturdy, anonymous form dominates almost half of the
photograph and clearly reaches beyond the frame due to the unusual
perspective, and yet despite this there remains a pale air of impermanence –
like the fading grass in the foreground, Spenceʼs noticeably aging body will
eventually and inevitably perish, whilst the bold industrial structures beyond
her will remain.

The original context of the photograph sheds further light on its meaning. The
photograph is from the series ʻRemodeling Photo Historyʼ and is one of a pair.
Its counterpart features Spence lying in the middle of a field, under the shade
of a large tree overhead, and is much more typical of the archetypal study of
the feminine nude. While the subject appears at ease in both photographs,
the reality of Spenceʼs ungainly and aging body gives the photograph a
sinister overtone when compared to her more relaxed and stereotypically
ʻfemaleʼ appearance in its opposite.

This is not the only possible interpretation, but is one that seemed to have
been shared by the National Grid and the PLACE group, who advocate
ʻundergroundingʼ of the national power grid around areas of ʻoutstanding
natural beautyʼ. In a PLACE poster campaign, the two images are each
paired with Steven Spenderʼs negative poem The Pylons, with the image
discussed here as presenting pylons negatively, whilst the other image is
used to show the natural beauty of the British landscape. This is significant
because it highlights the negativity of the image on several different levels: the
unnerving fight for dominance between the pylons and the subject in the
internal context; the struggle between Spence, her illness and the attitude and
process of the medical system in the original context; and its continued use as
a symbolically negative image in external contexts after Spenceʼs death.
In conclusion, although Spence appears calm and at one with nature at an
initial glance at this photograph, when its context is taken into account in
terms of Spenceʼs health, her views on the medical professionʼs answers to
aggressive diseases such as cancer opposed to ʻnaturalʼ remedies, and its
usage in other contexts even after Spenceʼs death, the photograph takes on
more of an air of the unfortunate reality of life.

1 Jo Spence, February 1986. SPARERIB, no. 163

• http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jo_Spence
• http://www.c4gallery.com/editions/industrialisation.htm
• http://hosted.aware.easynet.co.uk/jospence/jotext2.htm and
• http://hosted.aware.easynet.co.uk/jospence/
• http://www.p-l-a-c-e.org/artInitiative/index.htm

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