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Photographer's Final Project is a Moving Reckoning with Mortality

Feminist photographer Jo Spence lost her fight with leukemia, but her work lives on.
February 14, 2016, 6:00pm

"When I was told I had leukemia, I sank into a suicidal depression overnight,” wrote feminist photographer Jo Spence in 1991. "This time around I’m spending my time trying to decide what story my illness is telling me…” That story became The Final Project, a photo series that’s now being exhibited at London’s Richard Saltoun gallery.

Jo Spence began her career as a commercial photographer, but made her name with feminist works that punched holes in the myth of women’s housebound domestic bliss. Spence was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982, and eschewed Western treatments, seeking traditional Chinese medicine instead. Her series “The Picture of Health” served as an honest, gritty document of her battle with cancer. Though she survived for a decade after her initial breast cancer diagnosis, The Final Project was tragically true to its name—Spence died of leukemia in 1992.

The photos in The Final Project find Spence working with imagery of mortality. They feature skulls, skeletons, and masks that, in this context, seem very like death masks. She distorts her own face with blackened marks that mirror decay.

"Nearly a quarter of a century after her death, the radical photographic work of Jo Spence resonates more than ever," writes exhibit curator David Campany. "Always agitating, always questioning, refusing to accept her lot, Spence worked right up to her death in 1992. These photographs, almost all unseen before now, were made as she came to terms with the leukemia that killed her. Angry, witty, tenacious and eloquent, Spence's Final Project is getting the exposure it deserves."

Jo Spence: The Final Project, runs at Richard Saltoun Gallery until March 25th. For more information, click here.

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