Jo Spence is one of the most important and well known figures in post-war British photography yet is strangely neglected in the UK. This position in the culture is nowhere more clearly expressed than in the Jo Spence Memorial Archive which – despite its grand title – is the remains of her life's work in Terry Dennett's cluttered flat. Dennett is her former partner and collaborator and has been doing his best to make people aware of her work and find a permanent home for it. On the day we visited him he was preparing to send away the larger part of what he still had to Ryerson University in Canada. This collection of boxes has since taken its place in the growing collection of the Ryerson Image Centre alongside other collections, and will be installed in a new building when it opens this September.
Spence's work has not been completely neglected. There were exhibitions in 2005 at Belfast Exposed and Street Level in Glasgow and there will be a survey show of her work at Studio Voltaire this summer. However, the largest retrospective has taken place at MACBA in Barcelona and, with a few exceptions, British institutions have proved uninterested in Spence's work; she is not represented in the Tate collection and although the Art Fund has supported the purchase of a number of photographs for public collections Spence's work has not been among them.
In some ways this is not surprising, although her work is often funny it can also be confrontational. She often worked collaboratively and used unpretentious materials like the laminated panels that formed many of her shows. She was shown by prestigious institutions like the Hayward gallery but was more often involved in grass roots organisations like Camerawork. Lastly, her subject matter was often uncomfortable, she ‘put herself in the picture’ and was not afraid to tackle such subjects as her own illness and death.
It looks as if her work will be looked after and made accessible for future exhibition and study, even if it has to leave the UK for this to happen. Terry Dennett has been looking after her work since she died and must take the credit for this eventual outcome. Once a photographer is no longer there to represent and promote their work it takes great commitment and effort to keep it in the public domain.