Body Politics. From Welfare State to Personal Wellbeing
Body Politics: A Picture of Health? Essay by David Low
The Hyman Collection has many works which address social welfare and mental and physical health. Aspects include the human body, mortality and vulnerability, and the wellbeing of the individual, the community and the nation. With the Collection covering many different phases in British photographic history, we are in a position to see how approaches to these subjects have changed over the past 80 years, and how priorities and perspectives have shifted as photographic practice has moved from the social and the political to the personal and autobiographical.
We begin by examining the dawn of the social documentary movement in Britain, something that occurred notably through the pages of Picture Post magazine. The publication broke ground in its representation of a broad swath of the nation, its tackling of social issues, and its unashamedly political stances. Indeed, to observe the body of the individual was a means of thinking about the body politic, it successes and its failings. The magazine was to have a great influence on national politics, helping to pave the way for the post-war foundation of the welfare state.
Representative of the documentary practice of the era, Picture Post photographers imagined themselves to be neutral observers. Later in the century, image-makers escaped from the supposed objectivity of the documentary mode and showed themselves connected to the world they represented. It is particularly interesting to observe the way in which this coincided with the rise of particular photographic visions espoused by women, especially a new concern for self-portraiture, self-expression, and self-exploration. As women gained more of a voice within the medium, and as photographic practice and theory developed, it is the politics of representation that the representation of the body concerned itself with.
The launch of Picture Post in October 1938 not only revolutionised Britain visually - it is perhaps chiefly remembered as ushering in a golden era of domestic social documentary - but also socially and politically. The magazine developed what the cultural critic Stuart Hall later referred to as its 'Social Eye', an influential vision that promoted a society of shared values through the depiction of 'ordinary' Britons. This democratisation of the image involved not only 'ordinary' people being depicted alongside 'the great and the good', but also their being pictured in their own domestic and local environments, seemingly on their own terms. Furthermore, the publication's understanding of who constituted the 'ordinary' populace was a broad one that included those on the social margins who had not previously played any large part in mainstream representation.
Pioneering photo-essays presented private lives in such a way as to have public impact, informing both the general public and political discourse. It adopted from the start a particular focus on the human body and issues of health and welfare - of both the individual and the nation. We find that outlook established early on, for example in 'Unemployed!', a 1939 story with photographs by Kurt Hutton and text by Sidney Jacobson that followed the plight of Alfred Smith, a man who had lost his job after falling ill. It is an excellent example of the magazine's desire to represent the breadth of society, indeed Smith's social marginality is the very subject of the article, and to confront the failings of that society, with the article telling the reader how Smith 'is beginning to feel that perhaps there is no longer a place for him in our scheme of things, that he must change it or perish.included a powerful Hutton photograph of Smith tramping the streets with his dog (Hyman Collection). The iconic photograph might be thought of as not simply a portrait of Smith, but indirectly of the photographer himself and his modus operandi, an excellent illustration of the unseen Picture Post photographer whose practice it was to follow their subjects closely and to observe and record them in the course of their daily lives. This was of course not what the image was designed to communicate, but nor was it meant simply to describe a moment in Smith's life either. There was clearly a sense that the photograph communicated something essential about the age, for it was entitled The Picture of Our Time. With the symbolic firmly at work, the viewer was asked to read in this one individual a whole community ('And Alfred Smith is only one of two million' are the words with which the article ends) and see his plight as indicative of the era's systematic failings.
The pivotal moment for Picture Post's reform programme came in January 1941 with the publication of its special 'A Plan for Britain' issue, which argued for the reorganisation of the social safety net in Britain. It declared: 'Our plan for a new Britain is not something outside the war or something after the war. It is an essential part of our war aims. It is, indeed, our most positive war aim. The new Britain is the country we are fighting for.' The plan's proposals included a minimum wage, child allowances, education reform and, perhaps most crucially, a national health service. It was an important public forerunner to the Beveridge Report, Sir William Beveridge's official evaluation of state services which would lead to the post-war provision of 'cradle to the grave' social care under the auspices of the welfare state.
Post regularly returned to the subject of national health and to wider issues of social care over the months and years that followed. It also returned to some of its most powerful images, with The Picture of Our Time by Kurt Hutton being published once again, later in January 1941, in an essay entitled 'Social Security'. Hutton photographed Aneurin Bevan, the man whose job it would be to establish the new health service, on at least two occasions (with one print in the Hyman Collection), and also continued to report on matters of health, including a notable features on infantile paralysis (Hyman Collection) and 'Life in a Mental Hospital'.
As Picture Post followed the progress of the Beveridge Report, it also reused a photograph Bill Brandt had made in 1937 of the Hurst Family in Jarrow (Hyman Collection). Brandt's own tendency was to reuse his photographs in a somewhat different fashion, and he would go on to reinvent the image as a London-based scene (initially in Camera in London, 1948). While they have much in common with the social reformist documentary work been undertaken at that time, and were certainly used that way when first published, the intentions of the photographer remain ambiguous. Certainly we might identify in Brandt - not by and large to be found in other Picture Post photographers - an inclination to use the people and places he encountered as raw material to be bent to his visual whims and a refusal to let the facts of a photograph get in the way of its artistic potential.
Bert Hardy illustrates just this point in his autobiography when he describes Brandt being sent by editor Tom Hopkinson on assignment to the Gorbals, the impoverished area of Glasgow, only for the photographer to return 'with his usual contrasty pictures of the backs of policemen standing at the ends of streets, but nothing which really showed the human side of poverty.' It was this human element that tended to draw Hardy's eye, and it was to him that Hopkinson turned to get some usable pictures of the Gorbals. The subsequent feature, entitled 'The Forgotten Gorbals' (1948, Hyman Collection), was a reformist piece in the classic Picture Post mould that contained in Hardy's sequence a photograph depicting two young boys walking the streets that would become his most famous.
Hardy's stories often explored the most deprived areas of the country, and yet to his mind the photographs produced there were not political actions but honest reflections: 'I didn't think of it politically. I was never a political animal. I mean the journalists had that sort of job to do. I think I just photographed what I saw. I never angled anything.' Hardy might also be absolved of accusations of voyeurism or photographic tourism - accusations that could be levelled against Brandt and others of the era, such as Humphrey Spender - for in part his photography was rooted in his own experience. He later described how the two boys in the Gorbals reminded him of his own youth in London's Elephant and Castle (where a blue plaque now adorns his birthplace in the Priory Buildings on Webber Street).
Hardy returned to the Elephant and Castle at the end of 1948, producing one of his most famous photo-essays. With the writer Albert Lloyd, with whom he regularly collaborated, Hardy documented the area over the course of three weeks. This extended period of production was an important aspect of the work, as was working with local people in order to produce an 'inside' picture of the area. Vital to this was Maisie, a local prostitute who acted as a guide, and indeed collaborator, showing the two men around, introducing them to locals, and giving them ideas for the story. The result was an intimate, engaged, and sensitive story that respect its subjects while nevertheless also using the place and its residents to make broader points concerning the need for social improvements.
The Hyman Collection holds important vintage prints used for the original Picture Post story (having come from Lloyd's estate), including The Waiting Room (originally captioned 'The waiting room where even Elephant folk are subdued'). It is interesting to note, however, that Hardy's photographs of Maisie herself (the Hyman Collection has two vintage prints) were not among those published by Picture Post, an indication that some lives were not to be covered by the magazine, being too profane, too earthy perhaps. Beyond her profession, a factor in Maisie being denied a presence might have been her large physique, boldly on display in candid images that show her in a state of undress. Hardy would certainly have known that such pictures carried little chance of being used by the magazine, which suggests them to be fascinating documents of a different order. They testify to his ability to forge photographic relationships and to be accepted and trusted by those he observed. This is clear in many of his photographs, but never more so than in his portraits of Maisie.
Hardy seemed to reach for a form of picture journalism that would work with local people to produce an honest depiction of the area in question. We find something similar in the work of his colleague Grace Robertson, who has said that the making of Picture Post photo-essays was based on the photographer being not a tourist but rather immersing themselves in the world that they were covering, 'to be part of that life for several days'. She comments on how, in direct contrast to those photographers who developed strategies that allowed them to go unnoticed, her approach was to make herself known and form relationships with those she photographed.
Echoing Hardy's claims to objectivity, Robertson has spoken of Picture Post photographers as neutral, uninvolved observers, endeavouring not 'to disturb the environment into which we went'. She was one of the first women to break into the male bastion of the photographic profession, and she felt that this allowed her to create more honest, authentic accounts of women's lives. Women, she felt, reacted differently to her, or rather, to be precise, did not react to her, continuing their daily routines without alteration. The work she produced thus offered a different perspective, for Picture Post's quest for a wide and fair form representation had seemed more sensitive to matters of class than to those of gender.
Indeed, despite its progressive politics, the magazine was hardly radical with regard to gender, and a patriarchal editorial attitude is discernible. One of Robertson's proudest achievements was a story on childbirth, begun on her own impetus but eventually axed by the magazine 'on the grounds that images of labour and birth would probably offend the sensibilities of a largely middle-aged female readership'. In addition to this projection of what women did and did not want to see, there was an accompanying sense concerning men. Women tended to be placed on display, with the founding editor Stefan Lorant rarely losing an opportunity to use images of young women to attract a male readership. Kurt Hutton's funfair image Care-Free set the tone in 1938 during the first weeks of the magazine's existence. On this note, it interesting to hear Grace Robertson describing her photographs of pub outing to Margate, showing as they did older women enjoying themselves by the sea, as a conscious response to Hutton's earlier photograph (Hyman Collection).
Thus we see how Picture Post possessed not simply a 'Social Eye' but equally a male gaze. Furthermore, this was a perspective that was also heteronormative, expressing the era's conventions with regard to notions of sexuality. A further contrast, particularly telling, can be found in another set of seaside images made in the southeast of England around the same time as Hutton's Care-Free. The painter Keith Vaughan's photographs (Hyman Collection) share a spontaneity with those photographs already discussed, having been made with a handheld 35mm Leica, the camera favoured by the modern photojournalist, and yet in depicting male friends, naked and at ease as they play and relax on Pagham Beach (near Bognor Regis in West Sussex), they present another world entirely.
This was a taboo subject, made at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence, and the photographs were not shown publicly until the twenty-first century. As the photographer, Vaughan seems just as relaxed as those photographed, for he is not just witness but participant, his images sharing in the joy and pleasure of the scenes. It is a series that suggests it was perhaps only in private, amateur photographs that the qualities of proximity, intimacy and honesty that social documentarians strove for could be truly achieved.
The demise of Picture Post in 1957 marked the end of an era for British photojournalism, and yet its ethos and practices were already being taken into the new independent forms of photography that were emerging away from the professional world of the newsrooms. Freedom from the demands of regular weekly deadlines allowed photographers to spend more time with, and get closer to, their subjects.
A cardinal example of this new practice is the series produced by Roger Mayne on Southam Street in west London. Mayne, a contributing photographer for Picture Post, made approximately 1400 photographs on the street and in the surrounding area between 1956 and 1961. Under the influence of Henri Cartier-Bresson's 'on the sly' Images à la sauvette (The Decisive Moment in its English edition, 1952), often focusing on the human figure in their (largely urban) environment, Mayne pioneered a form of photography new to Britain, spontaneous and intimate, in tune with its subjects and surroundings. But the street life it captured, and even the street itself, would soon disappear, with a large portion of the eastern end of Southam Street being demolished in the 1960s as part of urban redevelopment projects, with Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower going up in its place.
While accentuating the Picture Post ideal of the prolonged engagement, Mayne's work did not possess the same sense of social purpose. Indeed, the work was soon seen more as an elegy to what was lost in the post-war period, with the demise of established communities an unintended consequence of social reform movements. An engaged form of documentary has persisted however, and while approaches have changed much, being reimagined and taking on more self-aware and even critical stances, an ethos survives from the days of Picture Post, with photographers using their medium to fight still for a 'new Britain'.
We feel the ghost of that early mode, with echoes in particular of Bert Hardy's photographs of the Elephant and Castle, in the images made by Nick Hedges between 1968 and 1972 for the housing charity SHELTER, highlighting poverty and the lack of adequate housing in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and London. Hedges, however, later appended this work with commentaries that drew attention to their failings and problematic aspects, suggesting that SHELTER 'sought to present an edited version of reality which conformed to a vague woolly middle-of-the-road liberalism.' He highlighted the collection of stereotypes regularly called upon, and the way in which these distorted the photographed subjects. In demonstration he gave his photograph Cathy the new label Mother and baby (Madonna and child), in essence suggesting that social documentary is as loaded with naturalised conventions as any other form of image-making. Such observations might lead us to further reconsider the output of the Picture Post era and ponder the degree to which the magazine did honestly depict the lives of those who appeared on its pages.
More recent practice has endeavoured to deal with these issues by working more directly with the photographed subjects. We see this approach at work in Eliza Hatch's series Cheer Up Luv, dealing with women's experience of sexual harassment, as photographic portraits are presented with the subject's own accounts of facing unwanted attention, abuse and assault. The fact that such treatment is meted out in public space implicitly questions just how democratic that space is, and suggests photography as a form of remedy, a means of creating truly free space.
This is not photography as image alone, of course, and Hatch's work highlights the importance of text and its role in shaping the reception of images. We might even find in this an implicit critique of the words that tend to surround images, or a suggestion that left on its own as pure image photography can effectively silence and objectify. A sense of didacticism and larger narrative are not absent, for Hatch's photographs, like the social documentary of old, surely seek to participate in public debates, and do so by asking the viewer to think outside the frame, from the specific to the general and the wider social ills. Yet there can no doubt that these are first and foremost portraits of named individuals, with image and text directing the viewer to address and consider the experiences of the person before them.
A similar collaborative approach twinning photographer's images with subjects' own words is seen in Jim Mortram's Small Town Inertia, a series that seems concerned with the failure to build equitable politics and photography (with the Hyman Collection containing a special portfolio of the series). Mortram's portraits, in contrast to Hatch's, follow their subjects indoors, mirroring the retreat away from public space made by vulnerable and excluded people living close to his own home. The latter is an important detail, marking Mortram as a modern social documentarian who, like Ken Grant in Liverpool, depicts his own world without travelling far from his own door, and who does not profess objectivity but instead declares an interest in and connection to what is shown. This might be thought of as the classic social documentary mode infused with the professed artlessness of private amateur photography.
The series stands as a searing indictment of national politics and the implementation of austerity measures, made during an age in which 'politicians have given up on the idea of saving people', as journalist Paul Mason writes in the introduction to Mortram's book. And yet Mortram's subjects are often those who have been let down by local community also. They include James, mistreated and mocked as a disabled person, and David who, suffering from blindness, tells of feeling 'no longer a part of the world', imagining himself instead as 'some kind of spirit stuck in some parallel purgatory'. Photographed by Mortram, always in their homes and so often alone, we seem to experience in the portraits of these people a reversion, returning to the adrift, isolated figures of Hutton's photography for Picture Post, again faced with The Picture of Our Time.
The modern collaborative approach on display in these series by Jim Mortram and Eliza Hatch implicitly challenges conventional documentary and the uneven relationship between photographer and photographed upon which it is so often based. Moreover, the work of Eliza Hatch, dealing as it does with the objectification of women, and the male gaze that has informed and characterised so much photography, raises important questions about the historic role of women in photography, in front of the camera and behind it.
We do see different approaches to the female form emerging, the most radical, in fact, emerging from the Picture Post stable. The post-war years saw Bill Brandt in the midst of a crucial evolutionary phase as he started to show a distinct new experimental approach to photographing the human body. This became most evident in his nude studies, photographs that stood in marked contrast to his scenes of the industrial North, as well as his earlier nudes, Degas-tinged Parisian scenes such as Salle de Bains (1934, Hyman Collection).
In these ground-breaking works, Brandt distorted depths of field to make warped, elongated forms of the human body. His use of an old police camera (one with a very small fixed aperture) was but one demonstration of his willingness to repurpose the instruments and approaches of established documentary and reportage modes. Equally, the private, domestic settings of his nudes provided indication that his photography operated at a remove from the public, politically- and socially-conscious image realm that Picture Post had created. Later still, Brandt turned pebble beaches into eerie and isolated settings for his nudes, nudes which were increasingly reduced to the discreet fragments of disconnected body parts, those parts themselves becoming 'strange landscapes', as Paul Hill has described.
When these nudes were exhibited as part of the celebrated Brandt retrospective at MOMA, New York, in 1969, the museum's director of photography John Szarkowski declared them to be 'as anonymous and as moving as a bleached and broken sculpture, fresh from the earth', comparable only with the work of Edward Weston. The work of these two men, Brandt and Weston, helps us to understand what had become of the depiction of the body and the nude in the age of photographic modernism. While notions of eroticism and the sensual are largely abandoned in favour of an emphasis on abstraction and formal qualities, the female body remained the object of male possession, harnessed as the instruments of their own artistic strivings and rendered, as Szarkowski observed, anonymous.
That such anonymity was deemed praiseworthy by Szarkowski as he was in the process of elevating - giving a name to - Brandt gives some indication of the problems existent in mid-century photography. The disparities between male and female, between photographer and photographed, were perpetuated not simply through images but through a discourse that supposed these to be natural to the medium and to society.
Matters of gender and the representation of women became increasingly prominent in the later era of independent photography. When Rose Finn-Kelcey pictured herself on a beach, she was creating a photograph a world away from Brandt's beach scenes. Furthermore, her seemingly light-hearted photograph might appear yet another variation on, and contrast to, Hutton's Care-Free, especially with the knowledge that it is a recreation of a photograph showing the artist's mother when she was a young woman, doing handstands on the beach with a friend during what one might imagine to have been the Picture Post era. The Restless Image: a discrepancy between the seen position & the felt position (Hyman Collection) suggests a desire on behalf of the female subject to be more than 'seen', and yet it at the same time exhibits another, possibly conflicting desire, to assume the privileged position of the seer. Of her work of this era she said: 'I wanted to be both inside the work and yet, as it unfolded, to also be an objective viewer'.
Jo Spence similarly doubled as photographer and photographed, but for her the practice spoke not of discrepancy but of a new correspondence. Hers was a form of holistic photography that recognised the long-standing power imbalances involved in picture-making and responded by reconfiguring photography's relationships. She placed herself at the heart of the image as if to declare the notion of the photographer as passive observer a fallacy, and to proclaim herself an active producer and her work as interventions in picture-making and social and political spheres. Equally vital was the collective nature of the work, with Spence's collaborations with Terry Dennett, Rosy Martin and others pioneering a new photography of joint endeavour.
The series Remodelling Photo History, made with Terry Dennett, sought to disrupt some of the long-established conventions of picture-making, conventions naturalised to the point of being rendered invisible. Neither the landscape nor the nude of Remodelling Photo History (Industrialization) (Hyman Collection), to take an excellent example, are those of the conventional idylls, and their jarring appearance force us to question our own acceptance of the views and perspectives established by artists over centuries and still made use of in advertising and entertainment. Inserting herself into the scene, and refusing any sense of eroticisation, Spence uses her body as a form of satirical weapon that exposes the gendered absurdities underlying multiple forms of image-making.
Spence also sought to empower those previously locked out of or silenced through established modes of representation. Accordingly, the Remodelling Photo History series might be seen to draw attention to photography's absences by raising issues of class and body image. Thus the images, on a more basic level, are concerned with her presence as a photographic subject, an unconventional, figure breaking into a visual spaces previously reserved for the hallowed few, making good on the democratic promise of the photographic medium.
A comparison with the photographs of John Coplans, at work at the same time, might prove instructive. His bodily studies appear to overtly reference and indulge in Modernist modes while also commenting upon - and rectifying - the absence of the male body from that movement's images. He documents, in addition, a very particular male physique, bluntly putting on display, as Spence did, a body type previously banished from photographic imagery. Large prints present at scale close details of his own body, with all its imperfections, wear and signs of aging. While we can certainly draw comparisons, it is clear that the work of Coplans constitutes an intervention more aesthetic than political and social. Furthermore, while Coplans shares with Spence a certain propensity towards 'cruel self-exposure', his registers in a different manner, for as a man he 'retains the male prerogative of control', as John Pultz observes.
It was such a 'prerogative of control', of agency over and ownership of her image - attainable for a man, far more elusive for a woman - that Spence sought, particularly as her work progressed beyond cultural narratives to incorporate those of the personal sphere. Here we might address the original laminated title panel dating from the first publication of Remodelling Photo History in 1982 (Hyman Collection). At that time the series carried the title The History Lesson: Self as Image, a name that hints at the wider role Spence was beginning to play within her work, not simply as a nameless body whose raw physicality interrupted artistic convention but a figure imbued with an identity and a history, a 'self' in need of representation and exploration.
The title panel's images, depicting Terry Dennett on holiday at the beach and Jo Spence at home in an armchair reading, suggest this transitional moment, a crossing over into the space of the personal. 'Snapshots' that appeared to have been printed at the chemist's, they would not be out of place in a family album. Paralleled by the cheaply-produced and easily-transportable laminate that was Spence's chosen form of display at this time, the snapshot format also points at how these were photographs whose role and function were in marked contrast to others we've examined. These were not the aesthetic objects of Brandt's world, laboriously produced for an art-exhibition audience, but physically unassuming objects that carried weighty personal statements and political messages, designed to be seen by - and to educate - a community of fellow independent photographers and students.
A major factor in this transition to the personal was Spence being diagnosed with cancer, an event that itself became the direct subject of a powerful three-image work, Being Told I had Cancer (Hyman Collection). Those photographs became part of the series Remodelling Medical History, in which Spence recorded her experiences in the health system, stating that 'I determined to document for myself what was happening to me. Not to be merely the object of their medical discourse but to be the active subject of my own investigation.' In this series, Spence drew parallels between medicine and photography, finding in both a form of violence unleashed upon the body under examination. Photography, however, also provided a way of responding, a means of defence and of fighting back.
Spence's practice has proved influential and appears highly relevant to our modern era in which the body, personal wellbeing, mental health, and issues of representation have become vital subjects among contemporary artists and photographers. Indeed, we might now recognise an echo in Eliza Hatch's photographs, work that responds to traumatic personal experience and seeks a sense of control and catharsis. Yet it is in practice involving self-portraiture that Spence's influence is most keenly felt, with photographers appearing before the lens, inhabiting other personas, channelling the expressive potential of their bodies, indeed even peering inside in order to contemplate the make-up and the breakdown of those bodies and their relationships to that physicality.
Addressing her own experiences of carrying a serious hereditary disease, Paloma Tendero's work pictures a negotiation and confrontation that is purely intimate and personal, pertaining to the photographer's body alone. Indeed, the body becomes the strict emphasis and the entire arena of action, with the lens tending to focus tightly on that body, isolating it from the social sphere and any sense of the world beyond. The body, in fact, can be seen to become its own world. In what might be thought of as a purer interpretation of the process of photographer becoming 'the active subject of my own investigation', Tendero's own interior becoming the place she is charged with exploring and recording.
The diseased body in Tendero's work doesn't melt away but takes on a more tangible, visible form, 'dragged from the inside into the revealing light of the external view.' The idea of the camera as an instrument of revelation is clearly played with here, those words echoing the ethos of the social documentarian who seeks to expose hidden ills. Yet here the study of the all-too-real experience of deadly disease takes on elements of the fantastic and even mythic, with Tendero employing constructed sculptural elements, along with other media such as knitting and embroidery, to give physical form and visual presence to the invisible forces within her.
The results are sensual and decorative - and harsh and unforgiving. Conjuring up a duality of benign and malign, the photographs evoke the complicated relationships we all have with our own bodies, here made all the more complex by inherited disease. In Veins (Hyman Collection), for example, in equivocal imagery typical of the artist, red thread seems to crawl across the body, caressing it, suffocating it. Suggested is the flow of blood that gives the body life and the 'progress' of the disease that threatens it. These are also metaphoric blood lines, linking the artist to family and future fate.
Forms of picture-making such as Tendero's not only place themselves physically on display but also seek the means of showing what cannot be seen, the interior life. Like Rose Finn-Kelcey's The Restless Image, Tendero seems to confront the superficiality of seeing and to reach for a deeper sense of the self.
A different sense of physicality seems in evidence in Polly Penrose's self-portraits, a ten-second timer capturing her spontaneous responses to what are often new and unfamiliar environments - staid interiors and domestic landscapes. The results can be stark, the photographer appearing not only naked but seemingly shorn of the constructs that clothe the body in the social spaces of the outside world, taking on unconventional forms as if giving the viewer a privileged glimpse of a secret self. A sense of fragility and vulnerability is palpable as the body displays its wear and tear, signs of aging, of childbirth, and of a highly physical image-making process.
It is a practice that might be seen to embrace and make visible the more performative side of the photographer's craft, the often intense and laboured physical movements that the documentarian has frequently relied upon but, at the same time, has ensured is absent from the finished image (Truman Capote memorably recalled Cartier-Bresson 'dancing along the pavement like an agitated dragonfly'). Penrose's pictures show the photographer's physicality, and even push it to its limits, challenging it to do yet more.
Yet a stillness and calm pervades the final photograph. We might here redeploy Szarkowski's words and see the body in terms of 'bleached and broken sculpture', and indeed Penrose's portraits do at times appear like Brandt nudes brought to life. Beyond this superficial similarity of aesthetic, however, the difference of practice makes for a wholly different kind of image, not least in that here the female body is contorted and distorted by its owner. If control over the body is surrendered, it is surrendered to fleeting impulses, to the whims of the moment brought about by the collision of bodies and spaces. The end result thus becomes something more complex, almost contradictory. The body exudes strength in addition as weakness, and calm with the chaos. Equally, it is something funny as well as fragile, playful in its unguarded honesty, embracing a quiet absurd.
While the photographs of Paloma Tendero and Polly Penrose veer away from the more incisive social and political interventions of Jo Spence's own bodily examinations, they continue the earlier photographer's wrestling with issues of the female body and its representation. Indeed, perhaps by not assigning value, by considering bodies on their own terms, such photography might be seen as the apotheosis of the documentary mode which strove for ever closer and more honest acts of observation.
The issue of honesty is of course a complex notion in forms of image-making that are open about their adoption of subjective positions. It is one of the fascinating features of Jo Spence's work that as she embraced the personal and focused upon her own self, role-playing became a more prominent part of her practice, ushering other guises into the photographic frame. This is most evident in the Photo Therapy series, a collaboration with Rosy Martin, whom Spence met at a co-counselling psychotherapy session in the wake of her cancer diagnosis. This work continued the probing of photography's dominant tropes and practices while branching off into an investigation of the therapeutic potential of the medium.
Again acting out scenarios for the camera, Spence recreated scenes from memory, exploring in particular her relationship with her mother, and feelings of class shame and abandonment. Forgoing the sense of monolithic identity that conventional portraiture is founded upon, the resulting photographs present an array of personas - 'multiple, fragmented selves'.
Spence and Martin's Photo Therapy sessions have served as inspiration for important recent work, notably Heather Agyepong's 2015 series Too Many Blackamoors. Playing to the camera, Agyepong assumes the guise of Lady Sarah Forbes Bonetta, the West African adopted goddaughter of Queen Victoria. In the process she explores her own experiences as a young black woman in Europe and contends with social narratives foisted upon her, specifically the prevalent 'strong, independent, Black female narrative'. Embracing the therapeutic potential of the medium, as identified by Spence and Martin, the photographs confront that paradigm, producing in response a range of more venerable and subtle narratives of representations of black female subjects. The creation and embodiment of other personas suggests the richness of possibilities, the myriad other ways of living and other forms of representation.
These are themes developed further in Agyepong's most recent work, Wish You Were Here (2020, Hyman Collection), in which impetus comes from the African American vaudeville performer Aida Overton Walker, a woman who challenged the roles she was given and carved out her own forms of representation, especially on the stage. Once again faced with the presence of a sort of living ghost from history, we might identify an ongoing aspect of Agyepong's work as being a crucial reimagining of the idea of the female muse. The muse is here not the mute personification of the white male imagination but a figure whose prior example and experiment serve as the stimulus for personal development through role-playing and picture-making in the present day.
Channelling Overton Walker, Agyepong recreates racialised postcards of the early twentieth century as images that might play a positive and nuanced role in aiding mental wellbeing among people of Afro-Caribbean descent. The attainment of moments of peace and solace, such as that evoked in one particular photograph from the series, Le Cake-Walk: Spotlight on Rest, appears a vital part of this. Thus while performance lies at the heart of these images, there is also a sense of the end of performance, a settling into one's self.