Jo Spence : The Final Project Exhibition Review

Text: Maria-Edmée di Sambuy

“The horror is this: nothing to say about the death of one whom I love most, nothing to say about her photo, which I contemplate without ever being able to get to the heart of it, to transform it. The only thought I can have is that at the end of this death, my own death is inscribed; between the two, nothing more than waiting; I have no other resource than this irony: to speak of the ‘nothing to say’.”1


© Joe Spence, image courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery

“A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck.” 2

In 1990 Jo Spence was diagnosed with leukaemia. She died in 1992.
The Final Project, currently showing at Richard Saltoun gallery, took shape during these two painful, final years; recording the photographer’s contemplation of her own death.

© Joe Spence, image courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery

Jo Spence became a prominent figure of photography in the 1970s. Over three decades she developed a diverse body of work that challenges standardised modes of representation. Her photographs rid themselves of the idealism associated with commercial images and offer a new kind of politicised documentary photography.

In the 1980s Spence’s approach took an introspective turn. Investigating her experience of breast cancer, her work came to regard photography as a way to express and assimilate personal trauma.

The Final Project seems to extend Spence’s exploration of photography as a method of therapeutic examination of identity, but in the impossibility of casting the image of death, the project takes a closer look at the mechanisms of the photographic medium.

The provocative tone that had marked Spence’s photography throughout her career appears to fade in The Final Project – a defiance she hadn’t abandoned even in her struggle against breast cancer. Her voice softens, her presence dissolves, and her images give way to a melancholic lyricism.

Her last and foremost challenge as a photographer: “How do you make leukaemia visible? Well, how do you? It’s an impossibility.” 3


© Joe Spence, image courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery

The exhibition hosted by Richard Saltoun Gallery and curated by David Campany, presents a selection of photographs from The Final Project. The display alternates self-portraits with allegorical compositions and double-exposure images. The later of which appear as the most striking development of Spence’s practice: the photographer manipulates images taken before her illness by exposing one slide on top of another. In The Picture of Health Spence had carried out a photographic documentation of breast cancer by capturing the ways in which the illness had affected her body. With The Final Project however, Spence renounces to the representation of illness as an embodied subject, she chooses to abandon her habitual place in front of the camera’s lenses. Through the projection of one slide on top of another the photographer performs an inward movement, so that leukaemia appears as a hunting presence that comes to infect her past and future work.

Spence offers a moving perspective on memory and on the passing of time. Roland Barthes mourned the photograph as “flat death,” where the “Life/Death […] paradigm is reduced to a simple click.” 4 But this is not the absence that comes across in Spence’s exhibition. By returning to previous works Spence distorts the linear time of the photographic image so that The Final Project does not appear as a progression into death, but a transcendence beyond it. The testimony of an artist who challenged photography until her very last breath.

Joe Spence exhibition runs at Richard Saltoun Gallery until 25th March 2016.

[1] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Books, 2000. 93
[2] Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Rosetta Books, 2005. 56
[3] Jo Spence. http://www.jospence.org/assets/files/JO_SPENCE.pdf.
[4] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Books, 2000. 92