Jo Spence was born into a working class family in London in 1934. She was sent to secretarial college aged thirteen before finding work as a bookkeeper and typist to a photographer in the 1950s, where she was able to undertake a Kodak training course. She opened her own studio in the 1960s, providing a photographic service for weddings and family portraits.
By 1973, Spence had taken up a documentary style, often publishing her work in Spare Rib magazine. She met fellow photographer, and lifetime collaborator, Terry Dennett, at this time. Together they photographed a series that documented the traveller communities in East London. Together, Spence and Dennett founded the ‘Photography Workshop’, an independent research and publishing project. Out of the ‘Photography Workshop’ emerged a collective of female documentary photographers, the Hackney Flashers, consisting of photographers dedicated to social and economic problems in East London, specifically related to gender and the role of women in and outside the home. Together the group produced exhibitions such as Women and Work (1975) and Who’s Holding the Baby? (1978).
During the late 1970s and into the early 1980s Spence’s work became more focused on themes of domesticity and family life. Often playing multiple roles in her own photography, Spence attempted to liberate women from out-dated stereotypes and prescriptive gender roles. She had her first gallery exhibition in 1979 at the Hayward Gallery as part of the seminal group exhibition Three Perspectives on Photography. She exhibited a work called Beyond the Family Album, in which she investigated her own family and class background. Spence studied at the Polytechnic of Central London as a mature student, graduating in 1982 with a first-class honours degree in the theory and practice of photography.
Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982. Much of her subsequent work was a response to her treatment. Work such as Cancer Shock (1982) and The Picture of Health? (1982-86) presents Spence’s concerns through performative re-staging of very personal trauma. Her illness highlighted the inadequacies of the public health system, where she felt the patient was treated as an object rather than a person.
In 1990, Spence was diagnosed with leukaemia, an illness that would claim her life in 1992. Spence left an incredible legacy as an innovator: she was one of the first artists to explore identity politics through role-play, performance and raw and immediate autobiographical narratives, influencing the likes of Cindy Sherman, Jenny Saville, Tracey Emin and Gillian Wearing.