Fairy Tales and Photography, or, Another look at Cinderella, a facsimile of Jo Spence's ambitious BA thesis will be published in full for the first time. Written in 1982 by Spence, a cultural worker and photographer, this landmark thesis aimed to untangle interconnected gender and class oppressions in historic fairy tales. Spence asks How do we take a story like Cinderella out of the archives, off the bookshelves, out of the retail stores and attempt to prise out its latent class content? Its political and social uses?
Class Slippers, the sister publication contextualises the work of Spence for a contemporary audience and provides new insights to the dissertation nearly 40 years since its creation. It is written by Dr Frances Hatherley, an archivist at the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive at Birkbeck, University, with a preface by writer Marina Warner. The publication of both these books coincides with the forthcoming retrospective exhibition of Spences work From Fairy Tales to Phototherapy at the Arnolfini in Bristol which is part of the inaugural Bristol Photo Festival.
"This dissertation brings together subjects, both personal and political, that she grappled with throughout her life: social class, family histories, sexuality, representation of women and visual ideologies. Her work drew on her own lived experience of being a woman from a working-class background, her battles with cancer, mental health, education and her family history, but throughout she was always socially minded, with an eye on the structures of power that shape our lives
In this funny, scrappy, smart and insightful work, we are encouraged to take another look at Cinderella and once we have, fairytales will never look the same again." Dr Frances Hatherley
Spences thesis was a pivotal document created at a crucial point in her career. This facsimile version shows her handwritten markings and corrections, alongside her use of imagery from archival prints to magazines, book covers and photography to illustrate and enhance her argument. The thesis solidified her previous free-flowing thoughts, encompassed the key concerns her past and future work and formed powerful arguments which went on to mobilise future projects.
'By reproducing in facsimile Jo Spences exceptional dissertation, this publication pays homage to her methods and her independence of mind. With its Merz-like, scrapbook feel, its a form of domestic production in itself and a unique example of book-making history before widespread digitisation in the home. A typewritten, collaged work from before an epoch of PowerPoint and Photoshop, Fairytales and Photography, or, another look at Cinderella can take its place in its own right as one of Spences significant cultural interventions. Marina Warner
Jo Spence (1934 - 1992) started her career assisting commercial photographers before quickly establishing her own agency specialising in weddings, family portraiture and actor portfolios. Her early experiences led her to an acute understanding of the mechanics of photography from the practical to more theoretical considerations. The early seventies saw Spence's work shift towards a more interrogative and critical documentary mode which articulated a desire to create photographs that run counter to the idealised imagery offered by advertising.
Alongside a prolific photographic practice, Spence maintained a career as an educator, writer, organiser and broadcaster. For Spence, photography should be informative, and it should be noted that her emergence as a photographer paralleled an increasingly politicised art world.
Following a diagnosis with breast cancer subsequent work was a response to her treatment by the medical establishment and her attempt to navigate its authority through alternative therapies. In 1984, alongside Rosy Martin, Spence developed 'Photo-Therapy', adopting techniques from co-counselling to invert the traditional relationship between the photographer and the subject. If historically the subject had little control over their own representation, PhotoTherapy shifts this dynamic enabling them to act out personal narratives and claim agency for their own biography.
In 1990, after returning from work commitments abroad, Spence was diagnosed with leukaemia, an illness that would claim her life in 1992. Up until her final moments Spence was still probing at the potential of photography to articulate the 'unrepresentable'. Her practice illustrates a way to connect her own intimacies and traumas to a broader public discourse. Affirmation, for Spence was about visibility and autonomy - to say what you want to, when you want to.