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Jo Spence. The Gypsies and Travellers Archive (1973-75)

Jo Spence. The Gypsies and Travellers Archive (1973-75)

One of Jo Spence's major projects in the 1970s depicted the lives of gypsies or travellers and chronicled, especially, the lives of the women and children.

The Hyman Collection has acquired this entire body of work including:

1. 3 laminated large format A1 exhibition panels, made by the artist in her life time for touring exhibitions
2. 10 enlarged photographs, some with artist's labels on reverse, some mounted on board for exhibition
3. 80 photographs (approx. 10 x 8 or 5 x 7 inches), with various artist stamps on the reverse.
4. 405 large format contact prints (2.25 inches square), many with artists markings and/or artist stamps on reverse
5. 13 A4 sleeves containing small format contact prints
6. Related press cuttings and literature

The larger contact prints are especially significant because Spence would bring these images with her on her visits to show to the people that she had photographed.

These pictures mark are an important contribution to British social documentation of the 1970s and were also produced at a turning point in Spence's career. By the mid 1970s, after a number of years working as a professional portrait photographer, Jo Spence began to explore the political and documentary possibilities of the medium. This led to her involvement with the Children's Rights Workshop.

Spence's early documentary work took a particular interest in how children are represented within the family environment and attempted to break through the usually scripted depictions of children within archetypal domestic photography.

During this period, Spence met Terry Dennett who would become a lifelong collaborator. Working together, they photographed travelling communities living under the Westway in Notting Hill. Owing much to a social documentary tradition, the photographs explore issues around the representation of marginalised and underrepresented communities.


Jo Spence: Gypsies and Travellers
Nicola Baird

"My journey through documentary photography took a classic form.
I started on the edges of an unknown sector of society, gradually moving closer and closer to the inside. "
Jo Spence (i)

In the early 1970s, having worked for a number of years as a high street portrait photographer with a studio in Hampstead, Jo Spence began to feel that what she was doing essentially contradicted her political beliefs. Seeking 'to belong to a more egalitarian society'(ii), Spence gave up her studio and exchanged her purely commercial relationship with photography in order to pursue the political and documentary possibilities of the medium. This led to her involvement with the Children's Rights Workshop, based in Bermondsey, and her endeavours to produce reading material for children using photographs. Spence's early documentary work took a particular interest in how children are represented within the family environment and attempted to break through the usually scripted depictions of children within archetypal domestic photography. This culminated in an Arts Council-funded exhibition entitled Children Photographed. Exploring various photographic styles, Children Photographed was organised in collaboration with Andrew Mann of the Children's Rights Workshop, together with Christine Vincent, Diana Phillips and Arthur Lockwood of the design group Ikon, and was Spence's inaugural exhibition.

In 1974 whilst working for the Children's Rights Workshop, Spence met Terry Dennett, who was then teaching photography to children in his spare time. She somewhat humorously described Dennett later as, 'a socialist earning his living as a scientific photographer'(iii). Together they founded Photography Workshop, an independent educational, research and publishing organisation. Its aims, as stated in Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography, included: 'To initiate projects and promote interest in the critical use of photographyeducational and communication tools; To continue to participate in the setting up of short-term groups to carry out specific documentary projects, as requested by educational, community or sub-groups, and to encourage the photographic recording of personal, group and local history by those involved, with or without the assistance of professional photographers' (iv). All three aspects were relevant to Photography Workshop's inaugural documentary project, Spence and Dennett's first joint venture: 'We started to visit illegal sites in various parts of London where gypsies and travellers were encamped, and to take photographs (v), Spence recalls in Putting Myself in the Picture. One such site was an area of scrubland beneath the Westway in Notting Hill Gate.

The Westway
The corner of Latimer Road and Oxford Gardens in west London, 100 yards from what is now the Westway site, is thought to have been the site of gypsy settlement as early as 1800. When in December 1972, a dozen Irish Traveller and Romany families with caravans drove onto ground on the east side of Woods Lane, opposite the White City Estate, their arrival reflected the national shortage of 'Gypsy' caravan sites, despite the passing four years earlier of a Parliamentary Act obliging all local authorities in England and Wales to provide suitable sites for nomadic communities residing or resorting, however briefly, within their municipal borders. Moreover, when they moved in January 1973 to land under the M40 at the bottom of Latimer Road, just inside Kensington and Chelsea's borough boundary, they did so following a rejection of the authority's application for 'designation with nil provision' in 1970. In October 1973 an attempt was made to evict thirty families from under the Westway flyover and fighting ensued. Formerly managed by the Greater London Council's Transport Division, the 1.1 acre site became the focus of sustained conflict between campaigners for the legalisation of the site, led by the Inner London Education Group and the Southern Gypsy Education Council, and members of a local Action Group. It was not until April 1976 that, in a victory, reported by The Guardian, for the 'gypsies and tinkers under the M40' (vi), the wasteland under the Westway became a legal caravan site.

It was under such circumstances that Spence and Dennett photographed the itinerant, and at the time, illegal inhabitants of the Westway, most of whom were young couples with small children. Spence documented her experiences some years later in Putting Myself in the Picture, published in 1986, in which she elaborates: 'You could say that it was the classic introduction to documentary for me. I was both privileged and upset to be allowed to look at a world where people had to work so hard to survive, whilst labouring under such terrible disadvantages. The transient sites in particular had no plumbing or refuse removal and life appeared to be very hard. I feel in retrospect that I was looking at them sometimes as the exotic other, and at other times as victims of society. My picture-making process duly reflects this' (vii).

Although Dennett describes himself as one quarter gypsy, having a grandmother who was a 'full blooded Romany' (viii), Spence, as a sensitive witness, felt keenly her position as outsider. As with Children Photographed, and in line with her commitment to the Children's Rights Workshop, the focus of the majority of Spence's photographs of gypsies and travellers is children. Depicted in a variety of attitudes, whether posing or simply at play many children as Spence noted, 'positively revelled in being photographed' while others appear unconcerned.

Children's Rights and Women's Work
Spence was fascinated, seduced even by The Secret World of Children, coincidentally the title of an aborted project that sought to record the activities of young children early in the morning prior to the household rising. During this period, Spence also became involved in the women's movement, photographing women at work for an exhibition organised and funded by Hackney Trades Council as part of its 75th anniversary celebrations, entitled, rather chauvinistically, '75 Years of Brotherhood'.

As a member of the newly formed Hackney Flashers collective, a group of politicised, female documentary photographers, Spence sought, in photographing women at work, to render visible what had previously been invisible, 'thereby validating women's experience and demonstrating their unrecognised contribution to the economy' (ix). Women were photographed at work both inside and outside the home. Those featured ranged from professionals to office workers and manual labourers. While the impetus for such a project was evidently the Hackney Trades Council's commission, it seems obvious that, for Spence, such evident enthusiasm and commitment to the documentation of women at work originated in her sojourn under the Westway. 'I became obsessed', she admits, 'with observing the social ways in which [gypsy and traveller] women conducted their housework. The site, though bare, provided close access, and work and play often went alongside each other. At least this is what I thought I saw'(x).

'In our travels', Spence continues, 'we made contact with Venice Manley, who ran a school for gypsy children on a London site and did occasional teaching on itinerant sites. Through her we began to visit regularly one site in East London and take pictures of the residents. I had no real idea of why I was taking the pictures, but felt a compulsion to keep returning and lookingxi. As Dennett explains in a recent interview, 'there were as many as 200-300 very temporary sites', one of which was on derelict land beneath the M11 motorway and was, as Dennett recalls, highly polluted, 'because of all the fumes down there, they were all getting coughs, the kids'. (xii). Others were ex-railway yards and in some cases even on roundabouts.

Documentation and Exhibition
Dennett asserts that their motivation in photographing gypsy and traveller communities was essentially to document and to educate, not only themselves but future generations and to preserve for posterity a way of life they sensed was ending. Their intention, then, as with successive projects, was, by whatever means possible, to get the images into the public domain. Whilst he insists that they had no single exhibition in mind, the pictures were widely exhibited. They were included in a show at the Half Moon Theatre (xiii), a former synagogue on Alie Street, Aldgate, which toured to France and Germany as well as to college galleries across the country. Spence and Dennett became intimately involved in the activities of the Half Moon Theatre, according to Dennett, the first artist-run space of its kind, having been approached by Paul Trevor and Mike Goldwater to collaborate (xiv). Indeed, Photography Workshop subsequently combined its programme with that of the Half Moon Gallery to form the Half Moon Photography Workshop, with a darkroom on site.

Laminated panels were produced which could be transported in carry cases, a means of conveying and displaying images and accompanying information that they were to adopt widely in their work for the ease with which it facilitated travelling exhibitions. Spence's friendship with Venice Manley, and her decision, along with Dennett to volunteer to teach photography to gypsy and traveller children, most of whom were largely illiterate, meant that the duo's engagement with,and commitment to, such communities, was in fact far more sustained and far more profound than might naturally have been assumed in light of Spence's self-deprecation.

As a result the Gypsy Education Council asked Spence if she would take some photographs for the purpose of teaching literacy, a project which she began but soon abandoned. The Gypsy Education Council's commission in many ways marked a turning point in Spence's career, troubling her conception and practice of the documentary mode: 'Here I encountered daily the problem of whose reality I was looking at. The ethical problems of my assumed right to photograph others was placed squarely on the agenda at this point' (xv). It is clear, then, that this project allowed Spence to acknowledge the limitations of documentary photography: 'My version of their reality got more and more problematic' (xvi). She recognised, too, the interception of the 'romantic photographic eye' in her observations of the more pastoral and nostalgic sides of gypsy life, for example in photographing 'ancient customs' such as cockfighting (xvii).

Spence later recalled that in an effort to instigate a dialogue with their subjects, they always took contact sheets back to the site' and provided the people they had photographed 'with images of themselves. Here I encountered an antagonism to images which were no idealised or obvious snapshots. To attempt to interest people in a sociological approach to their lives seemed impossible.' (xviii). However, in seeking a new means of representing her subjects, Spence concluded that self-representation might be the answer. Providing gypsy mothers with cameras in order that they might photograph their own children, in addition to running practical and educational workshops, the aim of which was to pass on necessary skills, hailed the beginnings of Spence and Dennett's work in the participatory mode. Dennett, when speaking about this project, reveals too that Spence recorded their conversations with the gypsy and travellers they met, an oral history that is now sadly lost.

European and British Contexts
Spence and Dennett were not alone in their attraction to the subject of gypsies and travellers. There are alternative and equally geographically-specific bodies of work, both historical and contemporary, that also focus on nomadic peoples. Broadly, a distinction can be propsosed between a European tradition which seeks to romanticise the gypsy way of life, privileging the aesthetic over the ascetic, and a British tradition that is much more prosaic and which operates not within an artistic sphere but within a socio-historical documentary mode. The late Lucien Clergue, a photographer best known for his supple female nudes, initiated a project in the early 1950s to photograph gypsies living in his native town of Arles in the South of France. Following the demolition of his home in the Second World War, Clergue and his family were forced to move, taking up residence in the 'gypsies' streets'. Many years later Clergue is quoted as having said, 'the gypsies are part of my life'(xix). On May 14th every year les Gitans would flock to Arles, to celebrate the gypsy goddess Sarah. Clergue began to attend this annual pilgrimage, becoming close friends with several members of the community who allowed him to photograph intimate gatherings. These included a wedding among other colourful events involving music, singing and dancing. Clergue's photographs of Arlesian gypsies, then, largely capture celebratory, ritualistic social events, as well as spontaneous and organised entertainment. His interest, unlike Spence's, lies not so much in the quotidian as in the extraordinary.

In Clergue's work, even those featuring one or a small group of gitans, there is an element of performance, and there are evocations of an effervescent and irrepressible culture of community. Italian photographer, Mario Giacomelli also photographed gypsies. His photographs of Senigallian gypsies from the series Zingari, taken between 1956 and 1958, are far starker than Clergue's, and methodologically closer to Spence and Dennett's work but lack the duo's commitment to a sociological, educational approach to his subjects.

Arguably of greater intertextual importance to Spence and Dennett's project to document the city's gypsy and traveller communities are the photographs of former Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka. Between 1962 and 1971 Koudelka travelled intermittently to Spain, France, Portugal, Romania, and Hungary as well as throughout his native Czechoslovakia, photographing Romany gypsy clans or Cikani. Seduced by and sympathetic to their nomadic lifestyle, Koudelka would spend his summers with the gypsies, sleeping in the open air, travelling light and living frugally. In this way he garnered the nickname, romantico clandestino. London was his base during the winter months and from 1970 he stayed in the large Bayswater flat of fellow Magnum photographer, David Hurn, having been introduced by Elliot Erwitt, who had been instrumental in facilitating his escape from Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Russian invasion. Hurn has since described his flat as 'the Dosshouse' (xx), 'because every struggling photographer passed through there at the time and slept on the floor'. 'Like everyone else', Hurn recalls, Koudelka 'asked if he could use my darkroom to develop some film. He turned up with 800 rolls[and] stayed on and off for about nine years'(xxi). From London Koudelka also made pilgrimages to the Epsom races, the Appleby Horse Fair, and in Ireland to St Patrick's Mountain and Lough Derg. Gypsies, his first major work was published in 1975, a year after Spence and Dennett began their collaboration under the Westway.

Dennett recalls that he and Spence met Koudelka and that their colleague Mike Goldwater at the Half Moon Gallery knew him well, but nevertheless states that the work 'wasn't influential at all'. (xxii). This rejection is not surprising given their very different intentions and as such the characteristics of Koudelka's work help bring into focus Spence and Dennett's alternative agenda. Koudelka's photographs, noted for their compositional brilliance, and sense of theatrical melancholy, are incredibly mesmeric. Imbued with a kind of mysterious otherworldliness, they exude a sadness the Portugese refer to as saudade, a deep-rooted longing for which there is no equivalent word in English. Koudelka, unlike Spence and Dennett, depicts his subjects as perpetual outsiders, far from seeming to exist on the periphery of society, they are seen to belong to a world unto themselves. In one startling image, as elucidated by Sean O'Hagan, a bewildered young Gypsy in handcuffs stands alone on a hill while in the middle distance a line of people, and a few uncertain-looking policemen, stand watching like onlookers in an absurdist drama. The protagonist, it transpires, had just been arrested, charged with murdering his wife. Koudelka's Cikiani inhabit a world that is eternal and unchanging whereas the gypsies and travellers that Spence and Dennett photograph exist very much in the interim, their world a transient one characterised by instability.

Dennett himself mentions, too,The Gypsies of Spain by Andre A Lopez. Published in 1974, The Gypsies of Spain is a sensitive and again heavily romanticised portrait of the Gitanos of Spain by a photographer who it is known spent many months with his subjects. The accompanying text by writer and photographer Jan Yoors, who left home at the age of twelve to travel with a gypsy kumpania, concentrates on demystifying the Spanish Romany by describing present-day living conditions and yet contributes still to the history of a European obsession with this alluringly photogenic culture.

A British context, however, is perhaps more meaningful. Dennett refers also to the work of Daniel Meadows. In 1971, only nineteen and a student at Manchester Polytechnic, Meadows, accompanied by fellow student Shireen Shah, visited Stockport's gypsy and traveller site to take photographs. Shah recalls: 'This was a time when the local councils were meant to be making provision for them to have a site so they could stop and not be illegal.This was one of the few places that they could stop and not be illegal.They weren't liked. I went with them once to the laundrycould see that people didn't want them to be coming in'. (xxiii). Meadows' photographs, like those of Spence and Dennett, have a documentary focus, although they lack Spence's concern with photographing children and women at work. Several are taken within gypsy homes and can be compared to photographs Spence took when she accompanied Venice Manley onto the Downs at Epsom where she was accorded 'the ultimate accolade.' (xxiv) by being allowed to photograph inside a family caravan.

Ian Dobbie (b.1949) too, photographed under the Westway in 1972 and a number of these pictures, including dogs fighting and children playing were purchased by the Arts Council.

* * * * * *

Gypsies, then, appealed to romantic and documentary photographers alike symbolising a stoical kind of non-conformism and a seductive countercultural ideal. While Spence and Dennett were not alone in photographing gypsies and travellers, their concerns were specifically sociological, historical and educational. Whereas European photographers, Koudelka, Giacomelli, Clergue and Lopez present their subjects as exotic and romantic, a cultural other, Spence and Dennett, like fellow British practitioners Meadows and Dobbie, challenge such ahistorical tropes, and retain a sense of the prosaic and of the mundane. What distinguishes Spence and Dennett's approach, however, is the depth of their commitment to working with these communities, teaching photography to the sites' children and contributing to the realisation of literacy programmes.

These photographs are based on trust and provide a lasting record of a specific moment in time. Ultimately, however, the duo's project to document gypsy and traveller communities coincided with Spence's questioning of the nature of such photography and the power imbalance that it implied. She would later conclude that self-representation was the only responsible and reliable means of making investigative work: 'In retrospect I can see that although I was a nice liberal humanist, I had no clue as to the history of the gypsy and travelling people, or their real social, economic or political needs. My thanks to them all, though, for helping me to understand my ignorance better.' (xxv).

i - Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography, (London: Camden Press, 1986), p50, 54
ii - Ibid., p50
iii - Ibid., 51
iv - Ibid., p55
v - Ibid., p51
vi - The Guardian, April 1976
vii - Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p51
viii - We are grateful to Terry Dennett for his assistance in researching this body of work, especially for information on the context for this project, through an interview conducted with him on 2nd March 2015.
ix - Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p69
x - Ibid., p55
xi - Ibid., p51
xii - Terry Dennett, Interview, 2nd March 2015
xiii - The Half Moon Photography Workshop, Half Moon Gallery Ltd and Camerawork magazine were also founded at The Half Moon Theatre. The Gallery space was the Half Moon Theatre's foyer. As Gallery Directors, (along with 4 or 5 others) Spence and Dennett were intimately involved with the activities of the Half Moon Photography Workshop and were founding members of Camerawork along with Mike Goldwater, Tom Picton and Paul Trevor. In 1975 The Half Moon Theatre Company set up a Management Council and began receiving a grant from the Arts Council which greatly benefited future projects. In addition jumble sales and 'folding parties' were held to raise money and save on printing costs. After seven issues of Camerawork (the first issue of which was published in 1976) and following fundamental disagreements Spence was asked to leave the group. She successfully sued for unfair dismissal and used her Industrial Tribunal award to fund Photography Workshop's first published collection of articles, Photography/Politics: One (Photography Workshop had been co-founded by Spence and Dennett in 1974 as an independent educational, research and publishing organisation and was based at Dennett's current address, 152 Upper Street, London N1.)
xiv - According to Dennett Paul Trevor and Mike Goldwater had seen a write up of Photography Workshop in the publication Amateur Photographer.
xv - Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p48
xvi - Ibid., p51
xvii - Ibid., 54
xviii - Ibid., p51
xix - Lucien Clergue, http://v1.zonezero.com/exposiciones/fotografos/lucien/
xx - David Hurn quoted by Sean O'Hagan, '40 years on: the exile comes home to Prague', The Guardian, 24th August 2008
xxi - Ibid
xxii - Terry Dennett, Interview, 2nd March 2015
xxiii - Shireen Shah, 'Introduction, Stockport Gypsies 1971, Daniel Meadows, (London: Café Royal Books, 2015)
xxiv - o Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p57
xxv - Ibid., p51

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