Jo Spence @ Tate Britain

I have seen work by Spence before, been aware of her dying from cancer and the loss this was to the photographic community but have never really looked at her work very much. A room full of it at Tate Britain is an ideal opportunity to do so. There is bound to be something behind what I have experienced as banality in her work which I see in the way she tends to project herself as ugly when she is not (presumably a reaction to the presentation by media of women as desirable objects to cater for the male gaze), her use of political arguments which were not often clear as well as a lack of finesse to the finished product of the print (the photograph does not need to be a work of art). A better understanding of Jo Spence might be possible by visiting her website where much of what was on show here is referenced.

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Self-portrait while suffering from breast cancer

There is a notice that talks about her. She lived from 1934 to 1992 so died in her 50’s. She made photographs that “represent, frame and construct reality”. She started as a commercial photographer and became committed to the “political potential of her medium, connecting personal, often emotive, narratives with broader social issues.” Saw photography as empowering, a way to explore the self, celebrating the feminist statement that “the personal is political”.
The first image (below, left) ( these are photographs but not finely crafted ones) shows her standing outside a shop though the window of which the viewer sees  wedding garments; Spence is holding a sign that says, “I’ll take (almost) any work.” Made in 1979, it apparently references a work by John Heartfield, a Dada artist and photomontage pioneer.
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Next is a series of 3 photographs (above, centre) all titled, Remodelling Photo History and cover colonisation, revisualisation and realisation and are dated 1981-1982. The middle one is striking as she sits reading Freud’s On Sexuality while wearing a pair of popping out eyes. In the third, she has a greasy darkened face which reminds me of the photographer Cindy Sherman!
The next photograph (see top) on show is a grim reminder of Spence’s cancer. She is naked from the waist up and on one bosom is written the words “Property of Jo Spence?” This is an early photo from the series in which she documented her struggle with cancer.
One needs to read the captions for this exhibition it seems. The meaning of the images is striking but certainly in retrospect, text can help to clarify what this work is about.
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The next wall is a display of images that reveal Spence’s exploration of photography as a kind of therapy. They show her playing with a Hoover and wiping what looks like blood over her naked body but is perhaps tomato sauce. This work was made in conjunction with her therapist. There is an exhilaration to some while the final one of her standing naked by a bed holding a flower suggests some kind of an end to what is an abstract narrative.
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The penultimate part of the show, there is no clear order to all of this, I am just walking clockwise around the room, is a framed display and four light boxes. This is from the time Spence was part of a collective called The Hackney Flashers who produced a body of work in 1975 called Women and Work.  These photographs are about the lot of women at the time and were followed by another exhibition entitled Who’s holding my baby? about motherhood.
There is also a slide presentation on a screen that deals with various endeavours of the Hackney Flashers. The political element is obvious yet there are interesting images that are contextualised by typewritten text emphasising the often overlooked value of women not just in the home but also in society. Some of the images are advertisements and cartoons which by being appropriated, examine the role of women.
Seeing this BT display makes me aware of what Spence was about; her work is not easy to look at although the message is still relevant today.
After seeing the exhibition, I purchase Jo Spence: The Final Project, a monograph with essays of her final body of work as the title suggests. The subject is her approaching death and the cover shows her standing wearing a skeleton mask.
The book itself contains photographs that reflect her dying days along with a kind of will in which she asks for things to be done for her and allots her effects to people. There is a striking montage in which her head peers out through a body that would have been a pharaoh ‘s while the statue holds a photograph of a young girl presumably Spence herself. This is the best work I have seen by Spence since the message is clear and inevitably timeless; it is almost a manual for death that allows the reader/viewer space to consider the inevitability of death and issues that surround it.
I came to Tate Britain today to see another exhibition (Art and Empire) and came across a photography exhibition and book that has left me feeling inspired. I never quite understood what Spence was about and found myself put off by not just the banality of her message but the banality of much of her hard copy that seems amateurish in it’s physical construction. In The Final Project she seems to transcend this and present something that strikes the viewer whatever their gender or political persuasion. It is one of those books that I would like to give to friends particularly those who work with living and dying.
In the book, there are two texts by Spence; one is Thoughts on Dying (Being Constructive) and the other is a collection of quotes on death that she collected that were retrieved from a floppy disc after she died.
Another review inspired by this exhibition is HERE

The Rhubarb Triangle: Martin Parr @ The Hepworth Wakefield

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This blog post is about a visit to the Hepworth in Wakefield to see a Martin Parr retrospective that also featured recent work made in the area.

I make the long trip up to Leeds where I shall spend a night before making the relatively short journey to Wakfield the next day. All this not just to see another Martin Parr exhibition but also to interact with an OCA tutor and some fellow students. Parr is controversial and hence there might be some useful debate around this visit.
One might question Parr’s humour! He often shows people in a candid, unflattering way and while this approach might be brilliant as satire, might it not also be sardonic? The people being pictured are often unaware of the readings such images might render. Parr may be part anthropologist yet does he not have an obligation to present his subjects honestly? Perhaps he does and it is the viewer who is prejudiced.
In her book on Parr, Sandra S.Phillips, writes, “His work can have an edge, though it is never really mean-spirited – he works from a knowing, amused disappointment with us, his human subjects.” She continues by mentioning his interest in depicting our species, the changing life of Europeans and globalisation along with its’ effects.
Parr breaks the rules of composition and this is perhaps another reason why there are those who question his work although this approach is hardly out of place in the post-modern world that Parr operates in.
Tony Ray-Jones was an influence both in his humour and knowledge of American photography which was better developed than the photographically asleep Britain. Ray-Jones also influenced Parr with his insight into the social life of Britain, the tension between tradition and modernity as ell as the distances that exist between people.
Parr responded to a new documentary approach that Szarkowski encouraged from the 1960’s. Rather than making a moral point, this work encouraged looking at the world in an attempt to understand it.
Other influences came from Bill Jay, the post cards of John Hinde, working at Butlins, the Manchester scene, Bill Owen’s Suburbia, From the Picture Press a MOMA catalogue,
What I like about Parr is the tremendous sense of humour of his photographs; people who see a lack of humanity in them are perhaps interpreting the context rather than accepting that the viewer is not completely aware of what is going on.
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I arrive at Leeds station and with help from my phone and googlemaps make my way to Hotel Metropole which is barely 5 minutes walk away. Although I need to wait to be served on arrival, the welcome is friendly and the room has free wifi with a good connection. The hotel itself is made from terracotta and I make a few photos from outside before entering. A local Indian restaurant is fully booked so I make for hotel’s restaurant. The meal is good but the flat mushrooms when they eventually do arrive (the waitress thought I said mashed potato) are not flat, I am called sometime after 22.00 to say I need to pay for my dinner immediately and there are similar problems over breakfast although it has been booked through reception.
Parr started his serious work in the north of England by photographing customs that we’re starting to fade having already dissappeared in the south while “Parr’s pictures of the old Methodist or Baptist chapel’s show that they were chiefly attended by the elderly, animated by belief but in certain decline.” Walker Evans was a recognisable influence (Ray-Jones had been his student at Yale).
Parr’s “unsentimentalised lives of ordinary people”; this “more emotionally-inflected work reveals a deeper personal investment in the lives of their subjects” whose “lives are ordinary rather than dramatic, the pictures made as acknowledgements of a dying culture and its everyday rituals, soon to disappear.”
1980: Parr moved to Ireland producing books Bad Weather followed by Fair Day; this work revealed the conceptual approach of the time (documentary of real life no longer found such an audience).
Parr started colour work in 1982 when he moved to Liverpool. A larger medium format camera, the Plaubel Makina, was used and Parr found new subject matter in the changes brought about during the Thatcher government in which a new kind of crass globalised culture was emerging. Old traditions were forgotten. Parr recorded “these momentous transformations, occurring, dazzlingly, right before his eyes.”
In 1987, Parr moved to Bristol and started recording life there. Adams and Baltz are considered by Phillips. In 1991, MOMA staged an exhibition, “British Photography from the Thatcher Years” which included Parr, Killip, Smith, Paul Graham and John Davies.
1989 saw The Cost of Living. Parr looking at his own class using a wide angle, fill in flash which “tends to etch out a silhouette, and to show a form as a large and generalised shape, but it also gives a psychological edge to the pictures, emphasising imbalance or distance. When held at waist level, the wide-angle lens tends to focus attention on the absolute centre of the picture.” Holding the camera at waist level to make photographs. It was at this time that I became aware of Parr’s work.
Phillips commentary on one photograph seems to typify Parr’s ability; “With marvellous observance Parr has come across an intricate patterning of abstract elements, but he also highlights a certain disagreeable disquiet in the subjects.” This relates to a photo called Conservative ‘Midsummer Madness’ Party yet could be equally applied to much of his work.
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One body of work not on show at the Hepworth Wakeley is Signs of the Times. This body of work was directly inspired by Bill Owen’s Suburbia.
Small World is a book I bought out of interest since it is about tourism, a subject that concerns me; it also “shows him attentive to the conventions and mistakes of snapshots” of the kind that might be made on a holiday. There is a suggestion that people prefer an imitation rather than the reality. This body of work does not feature in the Hepworth retrospective which is largely British based with emphasis on the north.
“His underlying subject is still the human effects of globalised corporate culture and, like this culture itself, Parr’s attention to its manifestations and mutations is voracious. This is all done with splendid humour, exuberance and wonder, but it is also imbued with regret.”
I miss the train to Wakefield Kirkgate and although there is another one, it is delayed, so I hurry onto another train that takes me to Wakefield Westgate. At the station I meet Sarah Gallear, a fellow student at the OCA and also on the landscape course. We walk and talk together as we make our way to the gallery getting lost en route.
Eddie Smith, support advisor, present from the OCA; acts as a go between for students and tutors.
Derek not necessarily a fan of Parr but has liked his work since the 80’s.
Students introduce themselves. Like Trillo, I have been with the OCA since 2007 and cite Parr as the first serious photographer I came into contact with.
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At the entry, there is a collection of photographs on a wall from the auto-portrait series. There is humour here yet also a fascination with the photographic processes involved and the places visited.
The Rhubarb triangle exhibition strikes me as an exemplary form of photo-documentation. Asymmetrical composition yet someone soon raises the ethical question of whether or not Parr is asking us to laugh at people.
Marvellous portrait of seated rhubarb grower. Environmental portraiture. The image of someone sitting behind the driving wheel of a mud splattered tractor eating their lunch is characteristic of Parr’s brilliance. One needs to look at these photos though rather than just stare otherwise their meaning will not register.
Influence of northern sense of humour; “if you don’t laugh, you’d cry!” attitude. Humour an antidote to artistic seriousness.
Parr’s use of saturated colour.
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Common Sense from 1995 to 1996 about ” a dominant shift in modern life to a culture obsessed with consumerism.” Parr considered it one of his best; it accompanied a worldwide exhibition that earned Parr a place in the Guiness Book of Records. I see it as a comment on the contemporary world through the medium of kitsch). The photographs, many of food, were taken with a macro lens and ring flash and document the low points of contemporary diet.
What makes one laugh with Parr’s photos!?
Some students are changing their mindset about Parr.
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Watching the film of “Think of England”
Perhaps there is also a sadness in Parr’s work as people try to hang on to what is passing.
People voicing prejudice.
Britain is a good-humoured place.
Parr manages to interview a wide range of people from different classes and walks of life – posh, working class, Pakistanis, cricketers and so on.
Much of Parr’s work seems to be about Englishness or Britishness and it is neutral in approach, allowing people to express themselves and have their say.
The English weather is another subject lovingly dealt with.
How do you define Englishness?
People celebrating at fetes and in pubs.
Commentary on globalisation such as the presence and absence of a Mac Donald’s in Bridport.
Not a polarised view albeit limited by the number of subjects covered.
Views on suburbia. Some love it, others see it as lacking in community spirit.
People who are contented, people who are not.
People being interviewed in the rain but not complaining. Even in thunderstorms they are out enjoying themselves.
Hassle at work, the recession. Devolution for the North?!
Beauty and the English rose.
Proud to be English? Snobbery around “people from Hemel Hempstead”
English only good at moaning. Complacent?
A West Indian who considered herself as English as anyone else.
Trainspotters! English eccentrics?
The BBC film is shot by Parr and directed by him but there were producers, editors etc
How much is staged? Gives the appearance of being off the wall.
LUNCH! Meet another student at the counter who has only just started at the OCA; she likes Parr for the variety of feelings he engenders in her. Seeing Parr in a gallery context, I cannot help but realise just what a brilliant photographer he is. The work is not just exceptionally well made, there is a vision not only in the way subject matter is communicated but the dialogue that Parr creates with his viewer.
People bring their own sense of cynicism to Parr’s work; he is just a guy holding up a mirror to the “Signs of the Times” (a title of his book from 1992)
Photographs look different when on walls to when they are in books; the reading of images is therefore likely to change.
Seeing the work in this gallery has boosted the general opinion of students although there are still those who say ” Well, I could have done that!” ( the classic amateur cliche) or plan ways of making similar images through more devious means such as with telephoto lenses.
One student objects to the work Parr has done abroad; it is not possible to photograph a place such as a foreign capital in ten days! Usually, Parr has been to these places a number of times before so his approach is not perhaps as superficial as it might seem. Furthermore perhaps, he is not trying to document them as places perhaps rather as receptacles of a globalised culture.
Trillo comments that what is mundane today will not be a few decades later. Picking out what is current! Photographing what is new. For instance, mobile phones which have changed so much since they came in.
Friction between different peoples. Underlying message complex.
Parr is not just making photographs for show, he is commenting on the world around him and photography itself.
Some students like to talk and I guess I am one of them since having met Parr, I do feel I have an insight into his work that critics who can not see where Parr is coming from (pleasant English background etc) consequently miss his message. The message is not a religious one yet the humour is not as adulterated as it might appear.
Parr getting to know people before he photographed them; not as upfront as his work might appear to be.
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Mocking the poor? One comment on The Last Resort body of work. Not the photographer’s intention.
Parr’s early black and white prints are excellently made; not just documents but well composed images with a fine breadth of tones. Sensitive images in the older style of documentary photography. Decisive moments.
A Modernist approach. Clever compositions, breaking the rules but without adding something. This work is reminiscent of black and white documentary work of the twentieth century as practiced by photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Some of the photos might be described as epic! A couple from The Last Resort series sit facing each other; he stares out in front of him with a cigarette hanging diagonally from his jaw while she fiddles with a ring on her finger. Between them is a table laid out for a meal.
A couple of children with ice cream over their faces; it might be comic but for their facial expressions. The kind of image that probably could not be made these days owing to a public awareness around children.
A group of women, some if not all of them mothers, sit on the edge of a pavement while a naked boy half stands in a puddle. There is a sense of fragility here as the small naked child surrounded by women is at the centre of the picture. Not a depiction that would be tolerated in today’s world.
Some small chat with Derek Trillo, the OCA tutor for the event. I first met Derek at an RPS event then again at the Revelations conference. We did not really make contact but today it was possible to have a chat with him. In referring to the Revelations body of work, I mention that I find that wildlife or even nature photography is not really accepted as an art form and Derek sees my point (possibly the first person at the OCA to do so). He mentions that the photography of museum exhibits of nature has found resonance within art photography (I think of Fontcuberta and Hiroshima Sugimoto) but it has not gone much further than that. I see brilliant nature photography that documents certain species and presents them in a certain light but this does not strike me as art even though protagonists of this kind of work have a tendency to call themselves as artists and regard themselves as such. Derek comments that for a work to be art, it needs to be communicating something visually.
I visit the museum shop befor leaving. Apart from purchasing the Rhubarb Triangle portfolio, I also get a copy of Think of England since I have seen the film and interpretations of England apart from being of interest relate to the landscape module. Of course, Parr is more social in his approach and I think this is something I have been missing in the landscape module which has however been very helpful in supporting the photographic process.
The book Think of England feels like a poor second to the film of the same name yet is also a delightful romp through British culture. Many of the images recall seaside postcard culture with oversaturated colours although the meanings here are often not as obvious as the jokes that adorn “dirty” postcards. Often Parr works through juxtaposition of subjects within the frame as well as between photographs on opposing pages or above and below each other. ZThere is a garishness about much of the work that is also making a comment. The crass nature of Britain is being shown here rather than the refined view which often suggests a way of life we should aspire to but is beyond the financial means of most. Few if any of the images in the book one would want to look at again except for trying to decode the messages they contain or possibly because one finds them amusing.
One image that interests me personally is of seagulls attacking a plate of chips. Probably the photographer has placed the chips there to make such a photograph and the image shows one gull overturning the plate they are on while another watches. This photograph was made sometime between 1995 and 2003 since when there has been a growing concern about seagulls and the way they prey on seaside visitors. An amusing photograph that has gained currency as a documentary image.
At the end of the book, there is an index telling the reader where the photographs were taken! The final image is a highway sign for camera in operation; a comment not just on the growth of surveillance culture but also that this book is itself a collection of photographs of the population.
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I also acquire the exhibition book of The Rhubarb Triangle which has a splendid introductory essay by Parr’s wife. This background description helps the images to fall in to place and give them more coherence as photographs that tell a story. This they do very well and I think it true to say that this exhibition is exemplary as far as contemporary documentary goes. No doubt some would disagree with that.
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The final image is of confectionary which contains rhubarb. One can buy this in the gallery shop! A surreal twist!
If I sound like a defender of Parr or as someone who is trying to promote him, I can only say that he is considered to be the leading photographer of the present time (being director of Magnum Photos is an indicator of this) and it would be unfortunate to miss his genius because of some forgone conclusion either about life or what photography should be.
However, Parr’s personal obsession with collecting all kinds of trivia, is not an interest I share. No doubt I have my own eccentricities and have my own collection of “boring postcards” made as a teenager but I do not pursue this kind of activity as a hobby. Photobooks I like and purchase if they are of both interest and helpful to undergraduate study. Yet I think I do share with Parr a vision of what Phillips calls “photography as an essential cultural artefact – both a record and an analysis of the kind of ice that was lived.”
Is the act of recording life almost as significant as life itself? I trust not.