Photography in Spare Rib

Photography in Spare Rib made female experience visible in a way that was rarely seen in mainstream publications. Contributor to Spare Rib, Liz Heron, analyses the important role photography played in the magazine.

From Spare Rib’s early days, photography played a central part in its coverage of the world and daily life through women’s eyes. It demonstrated the magazine’s commitment to making female experience visible, literally, with strong, arresting images that complemented writing on topics ignored elsewhere in women’s magazines and the wider media. The first-birthday issue (June 1973) opened with an article on domestic violence and the first women’s refuge, a report brought home by Angela Phillips' pictures; it closed with a series of quietly expressive portraits by Nancy Hillebrand accompanying a piece on women and madness. Both photographers featured in reviews of current exhibitions. Throughout the magazine, photographs had the space to be eloquent.

Publications on a shoestring budget lacked the resources for the latest news pictures, but Spare Rib’s progress through the 70s coincided with a resurgence of socially committed documentary photography. This is increasingly reflected in the news and features pages, as more and more working photographers contributed, many of them women, hitherto a minority in photojournalism. They contradicted the myth of the camera’s neutrality by recording events either marginalised or distorted by the mainstream press: protests against discrimination, cuts and low pay, and pickets such as those by women at the Grunwick factory, whose strike over working conditions and trade union membership drew mass support on the streets.

Spare Rib magazine issue 061

Spare Rib magazine issue 61 p. 1

Front cover of Issue 61 (August 1977), showing some of the key news events and feminist concerns of the time.

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Usage terms: Item 1: Front cover issue 61, Grunwick women
Usage Terms: © Michael Ann Mullen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 2: issue 61 pp 6-8 & p 46, Grunwick Women, by Val Charlton & Bea Campbell; p. 6 Photograph of Jayaben Desai by Caro Webb
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. P. 8 4x women at the July 11 mass picket, by Michael Ann Mullen
Usage terms: © Michael Ann Mullen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 3: issue 61, pp 19-21 How can we organise against rape, by Jenny Hall
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for How can we organise against rape? Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. P 19 Photograph What Justice for Women
Usage terms: © Begonia Tamarit Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 20 Photograph Picketing the Courts
Usage terms: © Angela Phillips Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 21 Germany: Reclaiming the Night by Courage; Who Ruined the Party by Pat Moan;
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Defending Ourselves
Usage terms: © Jill Nicholls Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence  Item 4: issue 61, p. 46 Review by Rosemary Stones, Children’s Rights Workshop, of The “mantlemass” Books by Barbara Willard. We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for this item. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Spare Rib magazine issue 061

Spare Rib magazine issue 61 p. 8

Photographs of the strike at the Grunwick film processing factory by Michael Ann Mullen.

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Usage terms: Item 1: Front cover issue 61, Grunwick women
Usage Terms: © Michael Ann Mullen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 2: issue 61 pp 6-8 & p 46, Grunwick Women, by Val Charlton & Bea Campbell; p. 6 Photograph of Jayaben Desai by Caro Webb
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. P. 8 4x women at the July 11 mass picket, by Michael Ann Mullen
Usage terms: © Michael Ann Mullen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence Item 3: issue 61, pp 19-21 How can we organise against rape, by Jenny Hall
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for How can we organise against rape? Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. P 19 Photograph What Justice for Women
Usage terms: © Begonia Tamarit Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 20 Photograph Picketing the Courts
Usage terms: © Angela Phillips Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 21 Germany: Reclaiming the Night by Courage; Who Ruined the Party by Pat Moan;
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Defending Ourselves
Usage terms: © Jill Nicholls Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence  Item 4: issue 61, p. 46 Review by Rosemary Stones, Children’s Rights Workshop, of The “mantlemass” Books by Barbara Willard. We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for this item. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Together, words and pictures consistently challenged stereotypes of the housewife and the sex object, countering them with closer views of women as active social protagonists, their work in and outside the home too often undervalued. Simultaneously, photographic art was given its due, with the probing of photography’s role in defining female self-perception and how it relates to self-esteem. Alongside discussions of the female nude and whether it could exist in feminist terms, freed from the possessing male gaze, women’s groups and feminist artists were turning the camera on themselves. This approach brought fresh perspectives on many aspects of women’s lives and the female body. In ‘Picture of Health’ Jo Spence explored the realities of her own cancer treatments.

Spare Rib magazine issue 163

Spare Rib magazine issue 163 p. 19

Article about photographer, Jo Spence’s, experience of having cancer.

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Usage terms: Items 1, 2, issue 163 front cover, Photo therapy session on powerlessness by Rosy Martin & Jo Spence; issue 163 pp 19-24 The Picture of Health by Jo Spence. Photographs: p 19 A Phototherapy session on powerlessness by Rosy Martin & Jo Spence; p 21 Jo Spence before going into hospital; The analogy between the war on cancer and the war in Vietnam by Terry Dennet & Jo Spence; p 22 Daily home exercise by Jo Spence & Maggie Murray; p 23 Moxibustion and Acupuncture treatment for breast cancer by Maggie Murray; p 24 In Phototherapy I re-enacted the trauma of my own powerlessness by Jo Spence; Marked up and ready for amputation by rosy Martin and Jo Spence.
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The special Visual Issue (July 1978) was planned after a first meeting of the magazine’s visual contributors: photographers, cartoonists, illustrators and graphic artists. We combined our skills to expose and subvert diverse forms of male power and female limitation. A photo essay with interviews focused on the lives of Black women in Mississippi; another highlighted the skills of women working in manual trades in London and Yorkshire. Rozsika Parker talked to artist Susan Hiller about questioning cultural assumptions, Michael Ann Mullen and Christine Roche documented a typical day in Michael Ann's life as a working photographer and single mother with nappies to change. Eight of us produced a photo-romance with a difference, using humour to overturn longstanding clichés.

Spare Rib magazine issue 072

Spare Rib magazine issue 72

A photographic account of a day in the life of Michael Ann Mullen, photographer and mother.

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Usage terms: Items 1, 2, 3: issue 72, pp 6-9, A real life story of true romance by Lucy Williams;  Jo Spence; Robyn Slovo; Lesley Ruda; Martin, Angie; Loftus, Val; Penny Hollow;  Liz Heron ; photographs by Jo Spence; Robyn Slovo; Lesley Ruda; Liz Heron; pp 18, 19 The Advertising Standards Authority’s Line on Sexism by Pat Moan & Jill Nicholls; pp 20-21 Images of Schoolgirls by Linda Sheppey; Abida Hashmi; Lisa Sutton;
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Item 4: issue 72, pp 26,27, A Day in the Life by Michael Ann Mullen
Usage terms: © Michael Ann Mullen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence; photographs by Christine Roche & Michael Ann Mullen
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Photograph. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Spare Rib magazine issue 072

Spare Rib magazine issue 72

A tongue in cheek photo story about an office worker’s fantasy.

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Usage terms: Items 1, 2, 3: issue 72, pp 6-9, A real life story of true romance by Lucy Williams;  Jo Spence; Robyn Slovo; Lesley Ruda; Martin, Angie; Loftus, Val; Penny Hollow;  Liz Heron ; photographs by Jo Spence; Robyn Slovo; Lesley Ruda; Liz Heron; pp 18, 19 The Advertising Standards Authority’s Line on Sexism by Pat Moan & Jill Nicholls; pp 20-21 Images of Schoolgirls by Linda Sheppey; Abida Hashmi; Lisa Sutton;
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for these items. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Item 4: issue 72, pp 26,27, A Day in the Life by Michael Ann Mullen
Usage terms: © Michael Ann Mullen Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence; photographs by Christine Roche & Michael Ann Mullen
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Photograph. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Spare Rib was a significant example of the mutually-supportive collectives that thrived in the 70s, its openness fostering yet more collaborations. In 1983 some women photographers who had been connected with the magazine established a unique agency, Format, to promote women’s photography.

  • Liz Heron
  • Liz Heron contributed to Spare Rib as a writer and photographer, and has written for many publications as a freelance journalist. She is the author of A Red River (Virago, 1996), a collection of short stories, and has published several non-fiction books. Among these is Truth, Dare or Promise (Virago, 1985) and Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography (co-edited with Val Williams, IB Tauris, 1996). Her other literary work includes translations from French and Italian. She currently writes a blog on culture and politics and is finishing a novel.