John Spence

Born1943
BirthplaceAbilene, TX
GenderMale
CitizenshipUnited States
Cultural HeritageEuropean-American
Light Work RelationshipArtist-in-Residence, 1995

Artwork

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Essays

In the last sequence from the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy clicks together the heels of her magic ruby slippers, closes her eyes and repeats over and over, 'There's no place like home.' When she opens her eyes she is lying on her bed back in Kansas surrounded by her friends and family. Her magical journey to the land of Oz has only been a dream. That she was able to experience the fantastic land of Oz without leaving her home in Kansas underscores the key moral lesson of the film - a world of experience lies just outside your own front door.

In a series of photographs titled Close to Home, John Spence arrives at the same conclusion as Dorothy, but found his motivation in the Tao Te Ching. In the 6th century B.C. Lao Tzu wrote... 'There is no need to run outside for better seeing.' Spence took those words to mean '...talking about knowing where you are from and if you are committed to understanding, then understand your own place and perhaps, just perhaps, if you are diligent enough, that process will be deep enough and wide enough to absorb whatever talent and concentration you have.' If L. Frank Baum, an author of children's stories born in Chittenango, NY in the 19th century, and Lao Tzu, a Chinese Taoist philosopher, can arrive at the same conclusion about a philosophy of life, then that conclusion must be worth exploring.

All the photographs in Close to Home are portraits of friends and family made between 1972-1984 with an 8 x 10 view camera in and around Spence's home in Lincoln, Nebraska. Throughout the series Spence's photographs are seductive and familiar, whether he is photographing individuals or groups. When he photographs individuals in pairs, the connections between subjects reveal a range of human experience that we can associate with descriptions explored by artists as diverse as Norman Rockwell, Ernest Hemingway and Nan Goldin. In all three photographs reproduced here, Spence photographs couples as they embrace. Each embrace signifies a connection, and each connection offers us a different set of human emotions to consider. A teenage girl in a prom night portrait holds onto her date like an anchor while he struts for the camera as cocky as a bantam rooster. Two young girls hold onto one another with an enthusiasm only known between best friends, whether or not that friendship will last for a week or endure for a lifetime. In the expanse of a wheat field far away from prying eyes two women relax against one another in a reflective pose that could be the bond of sisters, or girlfriends or lovers.

In this work Spence talks about making a private world public by speaking clearly and distinctly with a vocabulary that is universally understood. In these photographs he has found that voice and met the challenge of Lao Tzu and L. Frank Baum by locating a world of human experience, not very far from home.

Jeffrey Hoone (c)1996

During his residency at Light Work from May 1-30, 1995 John Spence revisited the images from Close to Home along with journals that he kept during the time the images were made with the intention of editing and sequencing the material into a book form.


A Just Image

As it plays out in the headlines, justice means equality, fairness, and the rule of law. Yet beyond the events broadcast on television and the news alerts flashed instantly to laptops and PDAs, there is a large realm of justice that eludes reporters. Throughout daily life - at home, in school, doing errands, tending children,m making dinner, playing sports - perceptions of justice often float just below the radar. 
The Light Work Collection offered plentiful proof that photographers frequently make images of routine daily life and its relationship to a sense of justice. However, as members of the Fine Arts 395 "Art and Identity"class noticed, scholars seldom extend the concept of justice into aspects of living that are legal, but sometimes ethically questionable. Counselors, social workers, and therapists seem to take over where the justice system stops. Nevertheless, the line between the legal system's purview and personal life is not fixed. Class members were careful to insist that the law is often less subtle in its grasp of situations and unaware of complexities than are the images included in this show. Nowhere in the law is it written that by embracing a stereotype one can sometimes achieve influence skin to contesting the mold. Thoughts and feelings such as these coalesced as the subject of this exhibition.

Work and family emerged as sites where what is fair is not always what is equal. , and what is equal is not always fair. However fair or unfair, the triumphs and annoyances one experiences at work mostly fall below the threshold of the law. It is conventional wisdom, not the IRS, which suggests that wealth carries no guarantee of happiness. Creating this nuanced exhibition about justice in everyday life led the class into hearty and un-nuanced discussions about the slights, snubs, and rebuffs of an ordinary day. 
The students chose the title A Just Image for this exhibition before they read about the expression in Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. With the phrase, he and they recognize that art coaxes the world of appearances to create symbols signifying ideas for which there are no words. Just an image becomes A Just Image.

Mary Warner Marien

A Just Image: Selections from the Light Work Collection is the result of a collaborative effort by thirty-one Syracuse University students enrolled in Professor Mary Warner Marien's "Art and Identity" course. The exhibition examines the Fall 2007 Syracuse Symposium theme of justice. The students chose images from the Light Work Collection, considering the personal and societal meanings of justice. They have created an interactive exhibition, where, as the students write in the exhibition catalogue, "ironically... the viewer is still judging."

A Just Image invites viewers to explore the photographs and rethink their definition of justice. As the students of the "Art and Identity" course discovered, though justice is a universal concept, it does not necessarily carry the same meaning for everyone. This can be seen in the different perceptions of stereotypes, families, occupations, and leisure activities, which are some of the topics examined by the class. According to the students, " The Pictures we have chosen require more than just superficial judgment; they require the viewer to acknowledge their own stereotyped projections."

Roslyn Esperon