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The Jo Spence Memorial Library: Terry Dennett Collection

Jo Spence (1934-1992) was a photographer and artist, well known for her work on the family album, photo therapy and collective photography.

DownloadSearchable excel spreadsheet with the inventory of the contents of the Jo Spence Memorial Library .

Download: Inventory of Categorised Archive Boxes and Portfolios

Podcast: Jo Spence Archive and Memorial library workshop - Over Birkbeck Arts Week 2017 the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre hosted a workshop on the Jo Spence Archive and Memorial Library. During this event, Dr Patrizia di Bello spoke about the archive as ‘feminist family album’, and Professsor Steve Edwards reflected on British documentary in the 1970s. You can listen to recordings of both talks here.

Jo Spence's legacy is not only as a photographer but also as a writer who overcame her fears of revealing her class origins and being 'found out' to be able to represent her ideas and tell her own story. This article, Stand in Contradiction, Write or be written off: Jo Spence, autobiography and archive, looks at the lasting impact of her life and work making connections between her inspiring autobiography Putting Myself in the Picture, her desire to take power over her own representation and a library of books which she collected in her lifetime.

About the collection

A collection of material previously kept by the Jo Spence Memorial Archive on Upper Street has been generously donated to Birkbeck’s History and Theory of Photography Research Centre.

Throughout her life and career as a photographer Jo Spence defied simple categorisation, working in a way which did not fit with conventional photography histories. When discussing her work and her attempts to document it through written work she stated:

I want this to stand in contradiction to the usual ‘history of photography’ approach, which carefully arranges photographers in schools and genres, assumes that mostly we work alone, and perpetuates various myths about creativity, rather than acknowledging that we are positioned within a cultural and economic network of relationships. Although some photographers assume a practice and then stay rigidly, and quite happily, within it and others shift their practice gradually across time, there are many like myself who inhabit several different practices in the same period.

The books and other materials in this collection reflect the diversity of interest and practice which characterised Spence’s photography and life. Her interest in different forms of photography, in visual culture, gender representation, in fairy tale mythologies, in personal histories, in health, in working with collectives and communities and her battle with cancer are represented here. These themes weave through the collection creating patterns and connections which lead towards a whole picture of an individual’s engaged and committed process.

The collection includes boxes of visual reference material, such as cartoons cut out from newspapers and magazines, greetings cards and photographs taken as references for her work. These boxes contain an insight into the artists working methods as well as providing a valuable resource of popular culture of the time she was working in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s.

In the 1970s Spence collaborated with other women in the Hackney Flashers collective and her interest in community photography projects is reflected in books in the collection relating to community, education and photography.

Having worked as a photographer for much of her life Spence studied at the Polytechnic of Central London as a mature student in her forties. She rebelled against the “power-based institutional framework”, and again worked in a collective, The Polysnappers, with fellow students. They worked with dolls to explore questions of the family, fantasy and gender roles.

Working with memory and childhood photographs, Spence collaborated with Rosy Martin on photo therapy to revisit and restage crucial parts of their lives and development in an empowering way. The collection includes props such as dolls, masks and shoes used in this and other photographic work, in which Spence used props and outfits to recreate a scene or explore aspects of herself.

The collection of books, magazines and pamphlets represent a life time of gathering books reflecting Spence and her former partner Terry Dennett’s interests and biographies and create a useful resource for students with wide ranges of interests.

For example the collection provides an insight into 1970s and 1980s popular and visual culture and the politics of the period with a wide range of contemporary and campaign group material. The collection also includes technical photography manuals from the early 1900s onwards, and a large number of art and photography books and catalogues.

Terry Dennett

Terry Dennett worked as a scientific photographer and also developed community photography projects working with children. He met Jo Spence when visiting the Children’s Rights Workshop in 1973. They soon began working collaboratively. Dennett worked with Spence on many projects including developing community projects as part of the Photography Workshop, ‘Remodelling Photo History’, an investigation into the way photography interacts with society, and ‘The Final Project’ which dealt with her mortality in Spence’s last few years of life.

After Spence’s death in 1992 Dennett acted as curator of the Jo Spence Memorial Archive. He took care of Spence’s work and developed an archive of her research and papers, also collecting new material that was generated about her life and work in order to make an ever evolving resource available for students and researchers.

The collection here includes material relating to Dennett’s research into economic crisis and the labour movement which he has developed into a photography project; ‘Crisis’. It also includes an incredible resource of books on the science of photography, relating to Dennett’s research into developing alternative darkroom techniques which also forms part of the collection.

Collection highlights

    As well as material specific to the work of Spence and Dennett the collection includes publications which will be of use to all students of the History of Art and Photography, including classic text such as Freund’s Photography and Society and Solomon-Godeau’s Photography at the Dock. The collection includes technical photography manuals, glamorous 1950s photography magazines like Photorama and community education and photography publications by groups like Exit. Specific to the work of Spence, the collection includes books on gender representation and politics, cancer treatment and health, props used in her work and beautiful children’s fairy tale books.


    The material is currently housed in B17, on the lower floor of 43 Gordon Square. It is currently being collated and is available for limited research access by appointment only.

    All material is reference only.

    Please note some books contain inserts such as slips of paper such as personal notes made by the artist. This is one of the features which makes the collection so fascinating. Please do not remove any inserts or markers from inside the books. As an artist’s collection we intend to keep all materials in the condition in which they were donated.

    If you would like to arrange access to the collection or if you are interested in volunteering to assist collating materials please contact Patrizia by emailing

Searching the publications collection

    A list of materials is available which you can search for key words and areas of interest. When you have identified a particular publication check the shelving section to find it. Publications are divided into three main sections, publications and material By or about Jo Spence, General Collection and Post 1992 Collection. The Post 1992 collection consists of materials collected by Dennett after Spence’s death. Within the Main and Post 1992 collections publications are divided among the following shelving sections.

    DownloadSearchable excel spreadsheet with the inventory of the contents of the Jo Spence Memorial Library

Jo Spence: The Feminist Photography of a Cultural Sniper

Jo Spence was a British writer, educator and photographer – although she was quite ambivalent about being termed an ‘artist’. In fact, she much preferred to call herself a ‘Cultural Sniper’. But instead of brandishing a gun, Spence used her camera to shoot and expose issues in culture.

One of the first woman photographers to confront the anxiety of seeing oneself in photographs, this HENI Talk explores how Spence targeted the media’s representation of women – always coded as young, plucked and perfectly made-up – by laying her own body on the line.

Learn more.