Exercise 5.2: Homage – Jo Spence

04th October 2021

Select an image by any photographer of your choice and take a photograph in response to it. You can respond in any way you like to the whole image or to just a part of it, but you must make explicit in your notes what it is that you’re responding to

OCA EYV (2014:106)

For this exercise I have chosen the photographer Jo Spence, (1934-1992)

Genres that Spence has practiced:

  • Own agency: family portraits, wedding photographs
  • Commercial photographer
  • Writer
  • Cultural worker
  • Photo therapist
  • Documentary photographs: political, socialist and feminist themes
  • Self portraits: breast cancer

Although Spence began her photography career in the commercial sector she worked her way to become a notable independent photographer who is an important figure in the history of feminist photography. She was also a British writer and educator who called herself a ‘Cultural Sniper’ who uses a camera rather than a gun.

The Final Project

When Spence became ill again with leukaemia she knew she was confronting death this time. Her last work is called ‘The Final Project’ 1991. She was still committed however to representing herself and others right up until the end.

This work took on a different creative direction. Spence would sandwich slides taken previously with ones taken specifically for this project giving a similar effect to how layers can be seen in Photoshop projects today. She did this so that she was able to insert her body into different natural settings.

The Final Project is more similar of how I have used my photographs in my own work and exhibitions. It is combined with ‘artistic’ methods such as photomontage and adding three dimensional objects on top of photographs and then reshooting this as the final images.

Tomlin, D. (2020)

The images that can be seen in the book, ‘The Final Project’ are all from the last two years of her life before her death from leukaemia.

For Spence the last part of her life journey is shown in the images, David Campany writes of the work shown in exhibition at the ‘Richard Saltoun Gallery’ London,

The Final Project looks to cultures that embrace and display death and dying in everyday life – Gothic imagery, Egyptian mummification rituals, or the smiling skeletons of the Mexican ‘day of the dead’.  Spence “got to know death”. In place of her own deteriorating body she uses dolls and masks, her own equivalent to the Egyptian shabti dolls that accompanied the deceased to their afterlife.

Campany, D. (2016)

Sandwiched Portraits

The image that I have chosen is from a set of five images where Spence has layered her portrait with images connected with nature and decay and a skeleton. The resulting series when seen in running order tell a story of ‘after death’. Here we visually see natural decay portraits which eventually lead to the final image of a skeleton portrait.

These images gain their title ‘Sandwiched Portraits’ (1991-92) because Spence would sandwich slides taken previously with ones taken specifically for this project giving a similar effect to how layers can be seen in Photoshop projects today. She did this so that she was able to insert her body into different natural settings.

Fig. 1 Spence, J. (1991-92) Sandwiched Portraits

While researching the above series through Google Search, I couldn’t find any specific description or analysis of their visual content. Somewhere, ‘out there’, there is obviously this information to be found, but I gave up after two and half days of looking through my books and the internet.

Due to this I thought that I would interpret the images from a personal perspective.

Image 1: The beginning of the death process. With crucifix and graveyard layered with her portrait, her body is buried for the decaying process to begin.

Image 2: Dark, locked in the coffin, deep beneath the ground. The greying of the grass and the brown of the fallen leaves represent the fact a life force has died and returns to the ground.

Image 3: The peeling bark of the tree, from it’s solid form it falls. The skin of the body, falls away from the frame and decays in patches.

Image 4: Plants, grass and bedding. Organisms and bacteria growing on the flesh, layered leaves looking like fungi.The plant bedding, dirt, looks like a freshly covered over grave.

Image 5: Skull. Nothing left, blue of veins as the flesh has peeled away. I couldn’t interpret this image further because the straight lines of the red shape in the pale blue background reminds me of wallpaper? The blue around Spence’s portrait leaves an arc, halo.

The Chosen Image

It was difficult to choose one image from the series. The series show changes in time of a self-portrait, this is how Spence perceived her changes, wrapped and layered with natural and man made symbols.

I chose the last self portrait in Spence’s series, Sandwiched Portrait 5. The skull layered with some type of pattern, maybe the skulls still life set up, but it is the final in the bodies journey in death. Here the body has gone and only the structure of bone left,

Fig, 2 Spence, J. (1991-92) Sandwiched Portrait 5

It is the journey of time and looking forwards that I am basing my self-portrait homage image on. The end journey for me, is also connected with the changing of self within times journey. However, my journey focuses on how I have grown up with the mantra – ‘I am ugly’ since the age of 10 years, instead of death.

The whole ‘I am ugly’ label started with ‘Squirrel’ grandad. Sitting in his front room with my immediate family. He declares that I am the ugliest out of all the girls in the family of which there were many and my blue eyed, blonde sister was one of the beautiful ones.

Here my self loathing began, travelling through time this hateful comment gave rise to self-hate of my body and face, shame and bulimia. It has impacted every relationship that I have ever had.

I Am Ugly – Self-portrait

The journey:

  • Today 1: A recent self-portrait screaming. I still want to get out of the self-hate cycle and keep telling myself that I want to be pretty. At 52 years the chances are very slim due to my weight caused by trauma in pregnancy when through illness I put on eight stone, my thyroid disorder, and my medication. On the bright side it gives me so much conceptual art and photography ideas that I work through for exhibition.
  • Today 2: This is the same image converted within an iPad app called ‘Inkwork’. This app takes a photograph and turns it into various line work which you can choose and adjust accordingly. I chose to use this to add some darker lines and patterns to the image and to emphasise the Today 1’s form slightly as the images layered together in my work, compared to Jo Spence’s are quite soft and fade into each other.
  • The past: A self-portrait photograph where I look totally different and quite feminine, with the added bonus I am smiling, not a fake smile but a real smile. This is where I would like to get to again. At the time though, I still thought I was ugly. However now looking back I realise how wrong I was and all of my self perception was actually in my head.
  • Childhood: At school I was bullied a lot of the time. One of the bullies repeated verbal attacks is how ugly I was with words such as ‘zit head’ and ‘Doogle’ being thrown at me daily. This impacted my mental health considerably and I spent most of my time in school from the age of 11 years to 16 years crying, hiding, self-harming which caused a cycle of depression, anxiety, being terrified of going to school and of course when the bullies lock on to distress they are causing someone, they continue their hateful behaviour more. Therefore for this image I have layered on an old photograph of Doogle himself from a Magic Roundabout still. Why did they call me Doogle? because my hair was long, not shaped and curly hanging over my eyes, and of course I was a ‘dog’, another derogative label.

The four images below are the ones I used for my final work in the order they were layered.

Fig. 4 Final image

Evaluation

For me the homage that I was paying to is firstly the concept of time from my present to my future and the technique of layering images which represent a specific moment in time. Unlike Spence who shows five distinct moments in her future, my image shows only one. The present time for my image symbolises the ‘Doogle’ bullying that has caused trauma and is part of my psyche and how I wish to return to a moment which I now know I was actually quite pretty.

The three images chosen show this timeline but I have found that layering them on top of each other is not as dynamic as Spence’s which are quite sharp in form and whose contrast means you can visually see her images as strong visual forms. My image however is quite diffused in colour and the lack of contrast means that the layers are easily distinguishable only where the mouths of each image has been placed in the same point of the composition. The only other two distinguishable parts of my final image is the blue hair of the present image and Doogle’s eyes and nose.

The overall concept is strong and the chosen images fit the concept well. I feel what has let the final image down is the lack of visual clues which lead to viewers to each time stage which is the individual images themselves.

I had tried different compositions and a few techniques such as blending to emphasise the individual images but to my dismay I still couldn’t get clear contrasting images. Below are some of the other final images that I had completed which after consideration were not chosen as my final one.

In conclusion, I found the best image was the one that showed natural skin tones. By using Doogle within the layers of images his yellow coat caused a yellow tint in the overall image. This made the image look as though it was incorrectly exposed due to the wrong white balance setting. The second reason I chose the image below is because I had dropped the opacity of Doogle down in the app rendering him less noticeable, therefore the large nose and dominant ovals of his eyes were lost and the viewers did not locate these forms first. Lastly, again relating to the Doogle image I moved his head downwards so that his mouth was in line with the other three images mouths. This meant that the viewers can see a positive smile from the past which is what is wanted for the future, an open present screaming mouth and Doogle’s open mouth of dismay.

Fig. 6 Tomlin, D. (2021) I Am Ugly

Images

Fig. 1 Spence, J. (1991-92) Sandwiched Portraits. At: https://davidcampany.com/jo-spence-the-final-project/ (Accessed 12.10.21)

Fig. 2 Spence, J. (1991-92) Sandwiched Portrait 5. At: https://www.richardsaltoun.com/exhibitions/46/works/artworks13917/ (Accessed: 12.10.21)

Bibliography

Websites

Campany, D. (2016) Jo Spence: The Final Project. At: https://davidcampany.com/jo-spence-the-final-project/ (Accessed 14.052020)

Tomlin, D (2020) Jo Spence. At: dawntomlinphoto.wordpress.com/2020/05/14/jo-spence/ (Accessed 04.10.21)


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