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Jo Spence. The History Lesson: Self as Image, also known as Remodelling Photo History

Jo Spence. The History Lesson: Self as Image, also known as Remodelling Photo History

The critical importance of Remodelling Photo History, also originally known as The History Lesson, to the subsequent direction of Spence's practice cannot be underestimated. The project, co-produced with Terry Dennett, emphasised staging and construction over the problematic assumption of naturalism in the documentary image. The term 'remodelling' placed emphasis on the necessity of an ideological and organisational restructuring of the photographic image. Essentially theatrical (the idea of photo-theatre being a key concept for Spence), Remodelling Photo History drew from the drama-therapy of Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal, whose 'spect-actor' techniques were absorbed and repurposed in the project for personally and politically therapeutic ends.

Remodelling Photo History was first published in the journal Screen (May-June 1982). There it is presented as a sequence of 13 photographs, and with an accompanying text. In this form it consisted of 7 paired page spreads and beneath each pair of images is a prominent title. (see illustration) The Screen sequence is as follows: a title image of two collaged photographs, one of Spence and one of Dennett (original in the Hyman Collection) and the following pairs: Industrialization, Colonization, Regulation, Subordination, Realization, Self as Image, and finally, uncaptioned, a circular image of Jo in a bathtub paired with a text by Berthold Brecht.

An indication of the importance of this series is provided by Jo Spence's essay on the work which appeared in Screen: Jo Spence, "Remodelling Photo-History. An afterword on a recent exhibition (with Terry Dennett)" in Screen vol. 23, no.1, 1983. This was then republished in her autobiography Putting Myself in the Picture (1986) and again in her anthology Cultural Sniping. The Art of Transgression (1995).

MACBA (the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona) has a correspondng set of Remodelling Photo History laminated on a red background that follows this formatting and was used by Spence to teach from.

There is also a paired set of six panels, mounted on black in the Reina Sofia in Madrid, although this appears to be missing the two Subordination images.

Other versions are unmounted and have varying numbers of images. The horizontal image of Jo in the bathtub does not appear in the original published and laminated iterations, but is found in later versions assembled from the original vintage photographs by Terry Dennett. This reflects a shift in the presentation of the work when it was republished in Jo Spence's autobiography, Putting Myself in the Picture. It may be argued that this provides the definitive version, given it appears in Spence's most important lifetime publication. The Hyman Collection set is based on this version.

In Putting Myself in the Picture, the works are slightly retitled, including two new captions, Revisualisation and Victimisation, and the frontal image of Jo from Regulation is omitted altogether. This omission necessitated a new structuring: instead of all the works being paired a double page presents three works under the new title Victimisation pp.126-127. (see illustration).

Additionally, at the end of the sequence a horizontal image of Jo in the bath is included. This image reads, almost as a postscript and in acknowledgement is wittily placed in parentheses. The Hyman Collection set matches this one, ie it omits the frontal Regulation image but includes the additional horizontal bathtime image, to make the complete set of 13 photographs. However, it should be noted that when this series was reproduced in Jo Spence Cultural Sniping, it is abreviated and the captions and illustrations suggest the series consists of just seven pictures (p.78 captions)

To complicate matters further, when unlaminated prints from Remodelling Photo History have been exhibited in recent years, the images have appeared un-paired and un-captioned, both as very partial sets or as more complete but unsequenced groups. In 2017 Shin Gallery showed a set of 13 that followed the Putting Myself in the Picture format but did so in an apparently random line, without sequencing or pairing. (see illustration)

Partial holdings are to be found at the V&A which has just two small Industrialisation images and the Tate which has three enlarged and hand-coloured prints. Aesthetically, the three large Tate prints are arguably one of the most powerful presentations of these works but by just including three pictures the series is stripped of much of its meaning. The largest institutional holdings are at Ryerson Imaging Centre in Canada, which holds the Jo Spence Memorial Archive. They have duplicate prints and different formats, but it is unclear whether they have a full set and if so which to which published version it corresponds.


For a consideration of the implications for the meaning of Spence's work of these different versions, presentations and contexts see Charlene Heath, "In Search of "Red": Remodelling the Jo Spence Memorial Archive", in Photography and Culture, vol. XX, issue XX, August 2017, pp.1-10.

Spence, herself, explained:
For those of us who are photographic workers it is obvious that a vast amount of work still needs to be done on the so-called history of photography, and on the practices, institutions and apparatuses of photography itself, and the function they have had in constructing and encouraging particular ways of viewing and telling about the world. The photo work which follows is an exploration of our attempts to work through some of this problem by 'making strange' the everyday, normalized, institutional practices and codes of 'the trade', re-ordered, re-modelled, re-invented, so that their commonsense, unquestioned notions become disrupted. We are not trying to show familiar objects in unfamiliar ways, but rather to denaturalize the genres of photography which already consist of fully coded visual signs. Much of our thinking on this had been influenced by reading and seeing the work of Brecht, and by the writings of Augusto Boal

Above all, we wanted to get away from the dry didacticism which pervades so much worthy work on photographic theory and to provide instead a kind of 'revolt' from within the ranks. In a funny sort of way this is a return to our class roots, where adversity and oppression are dealt with not only through comradely struggles or learned exposition, but lived out through individual or group rituals like sarcasm or irony (which is commonly termed 'taking the piss'). We aimed to produce something which was perhaps not quite in such 'good taste' as it usually expected; something which tried to break down some of the sacred cows of photography and bourgeois aesthetics while daring to mention police photography and fashion photography in the very same breath, to indicate that perhaps they share some common formal features.


Jo Spence, quoted in the publication accompanying the exhibition: Jo Spence: Work (Part I), SPACE, London, 1 June - 15 July 2012; and Jo Spence: Work (Part II), Studio Voltaire, London, 12 June - 11 August 2012

When the Victoria and Albert Museum its works from the series, Spence and Dennett explained its origins: This photo work is an exploration of our attempts to work through ways of 'making strange' the everyday, normalized, institutional practices and codes of photography: re-ordered, re-modelled, re-invented, so that their commonsense meanings become disrupted. We are not trying to show familiar objects in unfamiliar ways, but rather to denaturalize the genres of photography which already consist of fully coded visual signs. Much of our thinking on this has been influenced by reading and seeing the work of Brecht, and by the writings of Augusto Boal in THEATRE OF THE OPPRESSED (Published by Pluto Press, 1979). What we finally hit upon as a working method was a form of photo-theatre. Here we could use non naturalistic modes of representation which allowed us to stage and create a kind of hybrid 'spectacle' whilst drawing upon and disrupting well known genres of photography which have been concerned with the representation of aspects of the female body. In order to do this we have used ourselves both as social actors and as photographers because we wanted to problematize and re-work the model/photographer relationship which is generally so one-sided.

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Jo Spence, copyright The Jo Spence Memorial Archive / Ryerson University, courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery, London

British Photography / The Hyman Collection


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