Working under the title ‘The Photography Workshop,’ the photographers, historians of working-class history, and educators Jo Spence (1934-1992) and Terry Dennett (1938-2018) collaborated and co-habited for a little under ten years. Rubber stamped on the backs of hand-printed postcards, included in the frontispieces of books, and marking files of photographic prints and negatives, The Photography Workshop was the banner under which Spence and Dennett conducted their photographic and pedagogical practice. While almost always produced or planned from their rented North London flat—which was also their studio and dark room— The Photography Workshop was not tied to a specific location or an organisation but a set of principles. Based on their experiences as white working-class men and women who had lived through World War Two and the depressed years of austerity afterwards, Spence and Dennett found photography to be the tool via which they could articulate their political and cultural identities. Furthermore, for Spence and Dennett, working in the 1970s and 1980s in the context of the quickly fracturing British Left, photography and photographic literacy was a political instrument which enabled the production of a collective subject, whose worth was not dictated by their means but by their shared capacity.
In 1984, looking back on a decade of their collaborative endeavour, Spence and Dennett described their work as stemming from a material base of “…the ultimate ‘independence’— poverty…” This is a characteristically sardonic statement by the two photographers, whose commitment to the demystification of labour, gender, and class relations was often delivered with rye humour. Spence and Dennett would not have intended to glamourise or fetishise poverty—Dennett dedicated years of his life to documenting its devastating effects—but in their joke there is a kernel of truth. Poverty excludes individuals from participation in a certain bourgeois order of behaviours, consumption habits, and ideals. If one is forced to live outside of these ideals, then there is a degree of freedom from those codes: freedom from, if not freedom to.
For Dennett, representation is not a fixed category or an image but a process via which one realises one's own capacity as a social being.
For Dennett and Spence, this freedom meant living as an unmarried couple, cheaply. Without the means to invest in property, they had no obligations to the pressure of a mortgage and no requirement to always work for profit1. For their photography, this meant being able to make their own cameras from household objects, gaining knowledge of photochemical processing to avoid paying for the development of their pictures, and casting their gaze away from aspirational middle-class lifestyles and interests towards social life outside of the disciplinary frame of bourgeois normativity. The radical form and content of their practice didn’t come from material abundance but rather from a tight space that required ingenuity.
In one of the photographs held in Spence’s archive, kept by Dennett in the same flat for the sixteen years between their deaths, we see a young girl sitting on a garden wall, in profile. She looks out across the street, oblivious to, or ignoring the photographer who captures the image. In the black and white photo—taken on a pinhole camera—everything is in motion, indistinct and doubly exposed. It’s a photo of a residential street, somewhere in South London, sometime in the mid 1970s. Three other figures are present in the middle-ground, perhaps the girl is talking to the young man who leans against the car, his torso twisted away from his legs as he addresses someone else, body slipping out of the frame of the photograph. Distorted by the elliptic curve of the print, the image appears to spin. The figure of the girl is blurred and impressionistic, the crudeness of the camera and print has flattened her features, but she has a strong presence, straight back, dark hair and skin, printed dress, holding court, or about to jump. She is the centrifugal point to the photograph, and the public scene, but remains somehow undisclosed to the viewer.
The photograph was taken at the South Island Place Children’s Workshop, circa 1974, an extracurricular club where Dennett taught children how to take and develop their own photographs, using pinhole cameras made out of household waste, including materials such as cereal boxes, pictured here, and quotidian objects such as wellington boots (the boot camera was christened the Welliflex). The photograph of the girl is most likely to have been taken by one of the children who attended the programme, not by Dennett himself2. Dennett regularly worked at South Island Place without Spence, often in collaboration with a playworker named Genieve Draper. However, Dennett's involvement with the organization was a direct product of his meeting with Spence, in 1973, at a children’s rights workshop. Their work with children ran concurrent with his research into the history of the labour movement and his street photography project documenting urban decay and homelessness in London. As Dennett and Spence later reflected: “Photography Workshop was set up in 1974 and immediately became a programme of workshops to teach photography to children, outside of formal schooling. In those days most of this work was done at weekends within the adventure playground movement3, in free schools and in independent children’s projects. At the same time we began to research the ‘hidden history’ of the cultural activities of the labour movement and the trade unions, particularly centring upon the period of the General Strike in 1926.”
These threads of research and practice coalesce around a centrally held belief: that photography is a politically efficacious technology with the potential to enable those who are socially and economically excluded to preserve ordinary moments of life. Describing this belief, Dennett is quoted as saying, “Photographs are documents we can make ourselves, documents we can have some control over with regard to distribution. Also important in this respect are the ephemeral materials of everyday life, the redundancy notices and tax demands etc. Such material constitutes a vivid historical counter-archive, for it often contains photographic images made outside the sanction of officialdom and of events censored from the press, and, perhaps more importantly, shows things so ordinary and every day, or so unique, that no one else has recorded them.” For Dennett, representation is not a fixed category or an image but a process via which one realises one's own capacity as a social being. Returning to the photo of the girl sat on the wall: a child—a black child in a majority white country still divesting itself of colonial Empire—at leisure, but not engaged in any stereotypical form of play, in public on her own terms, both ordinary and unique.
In late 1975, again in collaboration with Genivie Draper from South Island, Dennett ran another series of photography workshops, this time for an adult education initiative run by Cambridge House (a South London community organisation within a mile of South Island Place). The Spence archive holds a volume of papers related to the planning of these workshops, including diagrams for the transformation of the community hall into a dark room, and a set of meeting minutes from a preliminary discussion between the attendees of the workshop and Draper. The meeting took place without Dennett present and was meant to ascertain the groups’ interest in, and understanding of, the workshop proposal as well as to determine any access needs for the workshop. All of the attendees were women, and the transcribed conversation quickly moved away from the specifics of the workshop to more immediate issues such as rent arrears, rent-strikes, and paternal access orders. The women are working-class tenants of social housing, and are navigating and sharing information and knowledge about how to survive and operate within the maze of civic requirements and entitlements which condition their lives. In this context photography was not so much a medium, or even an act, but a gathering mechanism inside which the women could organise.
Dennett’s preparatory notes for the Cambridge House workshop lists potential activities and outcomes: “Intro talk on cameras, photography and darkroom” and “split into groups and make our own photohistories.” The objects and images produced through the workshop are not included in the archive. The women’s projects were presumably taken home with them, as their own lives and photohistories were their own property. Dennett’s archival practice appears to prize the discussion and the organisation above the images themselves. This is not to say that Dennett discounted the power of the photographic image, but instead that he believed that ownership of an image without knowledge of the process of its production was to have no rights over it at all. Today, camera phones and social media have made self-portraiture a banal act, while increasing state and corporate surveillance has pushed critical conversations on photography into an ethical corner, where the rights of the individual determine the validity of the photographic practice. At this time it is worth returning to Dennett and Spence, and their materialist and historical understanding of photography as both a metric for, and tool against, the political and economic conditions which produce our lives.
While focused on adult experiences, the Cambridge House workshop adhered to similar principles Dennet used with children. As Dennett and Spence noted, their work as researchers, photographers, and educators ran along parallel tracks, equally invested in children and their rights alongside the history of working-class emancipation. Developing from the libertarian impulses of May 1968, there was a blossoming in feminist and Left thought in the 1970s which used radical education models to break down divisions between adults and children. The workshops run by Dennett in the mid-1970s, therefore, belonged to a period of thought which sought emancipation for all through the levelling of traditionally upheld divisions. The equal attention given to children and the working class might be best understood as a proposal for a social order where actions and practices are considered before any categories of identity. When understood in this framework, photography is an argument for the difference between what someone is, what they have, and what they can do.