The Art of Pathography

The artists’ creation of a ‘true self-portrait’ is bound up in meanings of self-hood and individuation; by means of his/her practice becoming a method of developing the artists’ need for self-discovery. Through this self-exploration, the artefact becomes an attempt to reveal something of the artist, a therapeutic tool perhaps, by which the photograph is used as a form of depth psychology. A mixed methodology of autoethnography and thematic analysis is undertaken of the language of response – language generated from the viewing of purely visual data – to examine and record patterns or themes within this information that is relevant to the research question. Through this form of removed analysis - the interpretation of the photograph and not the artist - can a new internal world of the artist be revealed? Is there a particular reading that could be universalised or is this unique to me? Or is the analysis a series of projections, a more of an understanding of the readers? The concerns of this thesis are with the ways in which the production of these photographs and their reception can be incorporated into an art practice and a new self-portrait is revealed.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Informal Interview with Terry Dennett 12/04/11

Terry Dennett knew Jo Spence for 36 years, living together for 13 of these from 1973-1986. Dennett, an accomplished photographer and writer collaborated or ‘co-currated’ (T. Dennett 12.04.11) a lot of work with Jo Spence, extensively published, throughout this period.

The social relevance of their work together has been documented widely, photographs of gypsies, the women’s movement etc, their relationship producing some very thought provoking material, a combination of Spence from a social-cultural stance and Terry Dennett as a more politically motivated image maker.

It is widely documented that the work emanates from a social and political viewpoint; little has been documented, however, about how Spence’s upbringing may have influenced her motivations in her work. Specifically her relationship with her parents, her mother particularly, which was described as ‘difficult’.

Well before she started collaborating with Rosie Martin in 19xx, it was evident that Spence was interested in the psychodynamics of non-verbal communication in the form of her self-portraits.

I am particularly interested in the psychoanalytical work they did together between 1980-1986 and how that impacts on my research into the role of the family album. Her early self-expressive work, described by Spence, as her ‘for self’ albums. (T. Dennett 12.04.11)

Spence’s Alternative Family Album

Spence’s parents died within three weeks of each other in 19xx, where upon she set about producing ‘recreations’ as the ‘truth’ to fill in the what she called ‘the gaps’, in her past, to create her impression of ‘the whole’. (T. Dennett 12.04.11) During this period of research Spence was interested in the psychological nature of this form of expression and how this impacted on her past.

This ‘constructed truth’ would have been undertaken to engage with that relationship with mother and of asking herself different questions. Stories, for instance, ‘that one wouldn’t tell the neighbours’, as Dennett explains, ‘Jo realised she had to be her own person’ (T. Dennett 12.04.11)

Her expression of early her experiences of being evacuated during the war, her difficult relationship with her mother and demanding father impacted greatly on her imagery.

Experience with psychotherapy

Although clearly interested in the power of the therapeutic nature of this work, Spence’s experience of therapy as a talking cure, was mixed. The belief that she was in an engagement with the therapist as a companion rather than being a business transaction damaged this relationship. This exchange, is understood today as just part of the therapeutic relationship and integral to ‘setting of the therapeutic frame’ and seen as very much emotionally and experientially part of the process. Spence was charged for her first therapy session and never returned. She turned to ‘self therapy, usually within like minded groups, often feminists groups, without supervision and continued on her therapeutic journey.

‘Family albums’, stated Spence, ‘intrigues me by what they don’t show’ (T. Dennett 12.04.11) and that she believed that ultimatly ‘the photographs would make concrete the intellectual parts of her past’. (T. Dennett 12.04.11)


Spence was influenced by the work of writer and theatre theoretician Kenneth Burkes’ ideas of dramatism.[1] Could these techniques be used to rebuild her damaged relationship with mother? Would the scripting that she was interested in, be made to work in her hour of need, this was to be answered, as her diagnosis of her suffering from cancer, became evident in 19xx.

Mirror work, was important, which enabled her to be able to stage how she felt. Restructuring her version of family portraits in a staged narrative form and looking, through scripting, at her self image from her roots in photo theatre and mirror work,

While working with mirrors Spence was staging the encounter with ‘another’, the therapist or healer within. Spence was communicating with her ‘other self.’ (T. Dennett 12.04.11)

Dennett recounts the environment being ‘made highly charged’ while undergoing this ‘Social acting out’. The therapy was working in an explosive manner, the atmosphere in the flat, while working in such a way, was palpable. This therapeutic staging progressed to scripting, based on method acting and the work of (William Reich)[2] , was being very cathartic, charged with sexual energy. (T. Dennett 12.04.11)

Fig.3 shows an outcome of work. Spence is really crying in this image. She holds the bear that she took away with her when she was evacuated during the war.


Spence and Dennett worked together as co-authors during this stage of production, developing ideas together, as co-curators, often shooting ‘snaps as reference’ and going through a period of ‘waiting’, returning to restage the event, often on a 5x4 camera. Dennett would operate the camera.

One interesting area of process that intrigued me was, as with traditional process of the time, a ‘waiting time’, was necessary. Coined by Spence and Dennett, this was the time required for film to come back from the lab, this time enabled them to ‘become divorced from’ the image and allowed more ‘objectivity’. (T. Dennett 12.04.11)

[1] Dramatism, introduced by rhetorician Kenneth Burke, made its way into the field of communication in the early 1950s as a method for understanding the social uses of language and how to encounter the social and symbolic world of a drama (Brock, Burke, Burgess, Parke, and Simons 1985). Dramatism is the belief that language is a strategic, motivated response to a specific situation (Griffin 2006). It views language as a mode of symbolic action rather than a mode of knowledge (Burke 1978). Kenneth Burke's view was not that life is like a drama, but that life is a drama: that humans by nature see and interpret situations as drama. Dramatism theory has the layout of a play, complete with agents (actors), acts (plots), scenes (settings), agencies (tools, instruments, or means) and purposes. These five elements form the dramatistic "pentad." Dramatism comprises identification, dramatistic pentad, and the guilt-redemption cycle.

[2] Wilhelm Reich (March 24, 1897 – November 3, 1957) was an Austrian-American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, known as one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry. He was the author of several notable books, including The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Character Analysis, both published in 1933.[1]

Reich worked with Sigmund Freud in the 1920s and was a respected analyst for much of his life, focusing on character structure rather than on individual neurotic symptoms.[2] He tried to reconcile Marxism and psychoanalysis, arguing that neurosis is rooted in the physical, sexual, economic, and social conditions of the patient, and promoted adolescent sexuality, the availability of contraceptives, abortion, and divorce, and the importance for women of economic independence. His work influenced a generation of intellectuals, including Saul Bellow, William S. Burroughs, Paul Edwards, Norman Mailer, and A. S. Neill, and shaped innovations such as Fritz Perls's Gestalt therapy, Alexander Lowen's bioenergetic analysis, and Arthur Janov's primal therapy.[3]

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