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An Interpretation of Industrialization

by Jo Spence and Terry Dennett

Dan Foy

BA Hons Photography

Module no.: Seminar Tutor: Word Count:

10058 Linda Marchant 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 session. (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

• • • and SPARERIB • •