The soft-focused black and white self-portraits by American photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) have made a haunting-imprint as being some of the most distinctive photographs of her time. In Woodman’s images the subject frequently blends her face and body behind objects or sometimes through long-exposure techniques. In her photograph, Space2, Providence, Rhode Island, the subject hides her body behind torn-patterned wallpaper, her skin soft and translucent like a disappearing ghost. The subjects of Woodman’s photographs are often on the edge of disappearance, fading behind objects or blurring through soft movements, forever encapsulated in the confines of the image. Observers, historians, critics, and artists alike have frequently used words like “ghosts” to explain the ethereal and lingering quality of Woodman’s images. Lingering like the subjects in her images is the constant reminder of Francesca Woodman’s early death.
Francesca was immersed in the art world at a very young age. She was born in 1958 in Denver, Colorado to Betty and George Woodman. Francesca was born to artist parents; her mom a ceramist and her father a painter. The Woodman family frequently spent summers in Florence, Italy where Francesca explored the beautiful art of Europe. During her time in Italy, young Francesca was fascinated with old paintings of women dressed in expensive formal attire and frequently visited museums in Florence to sketch these figures.
Francesca kept journals throughout her short life where she wrote about her imagination and ideas. Her father George states in an article from The Guardian, “We were artists, and all our friends were artists, so that was normal for Francesca. But she didn’t try to do what we had done. She focused on photography early on, a medium in which neither of us worked—she struck off on her own. I gave her a camera when she was 13, and she just liked it. She had 50 million ideas.”
After many trips to Italy and the end of high school, her passion for art and photography led her to study at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence Rhode Island. It was at RISD where she started to create her ‘soft’ surrealist black and white self-portraits as well as images of other young women. Many historians and critics have stated that Woodman was born in a different era, and her work reflects that. The softness in her images is similar to photographs created during the early years of photography and shares some qualities of pictorialism. Woodman’s work has also been compared to the work of the surrealist. In The New York Review of Books Elizabeth Gumport writes about Woodman’s images and how, “They depict a world almost identical to the one captured by earlier generations of photographers, as if Woodman’s camera were a filter through which the neon clutter of contemporary life could not pass. Some of these images have the polished smoothness of Surrealist photographs, like those of Man Ray and Hans Bellmer, in which precisely-rendered objects are arranged so deliberately it seems the slightest movement would alter the meaning entirely.”
The arrangements within Woodman’s photographs, though their simplicity, were elaborate and thought-out. She was said to have journals, sketching and exploring different ideas and ways she could arrange things in her photographs. The way Woodman interacts her subjects with objects and the space they inhabit become symbolic in nature. Over time, different critics, historians, and artists have argued about these symbolic elements and their meanings. Some argue that the faded and ghost-like disappearance of her subjects foreshadow the want of her own disappearance. Others argue about the feminist qualities of her work, where the hiding of the subjects face from the camera is a symbol of avoiding the “male gaze” and the domestic livelihood of a woman. Whereas others like American photographer Cindy Sherman, think that “ . . . Francesca would scoff at being called a feminist artists she used herself organically, not to make a statement.”
Many viewers and admirers alike try to read into Woodman’s images, seeking a hidden meaning whether it be feminism or wanting to disappear. Betty Woodman, Francesca’s Mother, states in an article in The Guardian “You can reinterpret her pictures, if that’s your point of view. But I don’t think that was there . . . She had a good time. Her life wasn’t a series of miseries. She was fun to be with. It’s a basic fallacy that her death is what she was all about, and people read that into the photographs. They psychoanalyze them. Young people in particular feel she’s talking about them, somehow. They see the photographs as very personal. But that’s not the way I approach them. They’re often funny.”
Francesca made many self-portraits during her life. “It’s a matter of convenience, I am always available,” Francesca stated when asked by a curious friend. But Woodman’s work, though mostly self-portraits, also consists of other young female models. Alastair Sooke, writes in an article in The Telegraph that Francesca’s “images are not self-portraits in the sense that they offer self-revelation—the Woodman we see in the photographs is not the real-life young girl who kept a journal . . . instead Woodman’s photographs are mysterious performances that play on the instability of identity. Her desire to explore the possibilities of transformation is what drove her to make art.”
Struggling with recognition, Francesca’s work was unknown to the art world during her lifetime. In 1979 after finishing her studies at RISD, Woodman moved to New York City to start her career in photography. During this time she sent many portfolios and work to others, but did not end up securing anything. A good friend of Woodman, Betsy Berge, tells The Guardian as an artist “In Your 20s everything feels so urgent, you think you’ve got to be famous in 20 seconds, all the more because she had been making this very good work from the age of 14. The pressure was intense.” Francesca really wanted her work to be seen by the art world. In 1980, she accepted an artist-in-residency in Peterborough, New Hampshire at the MacDowell Colony.
Though, after the end of a romantic relationship, being denied a grant application, and depression, she tried to commit suicide. Her first attempt led her to psychiatric treatment and after her treatment, she published a small 24-paged artist book called Some Disordered Interior Geometrics. The small book was intertwined with handwritten notes and 16 photographs pasted on an old Italian geometry book.
Before her first suicide attempt in 1980, Francesca wrote to a friend she made from college, “After weeks and weeks and weeks of thinking about it, I finally managed to try and to do away with myself as neatly and concisely as possible . . . I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, some work, my friendship with you, and some artifacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things.” Towards the end of her life, Woodman was haunted with her own inadequacy and was rarely ever happy with the results of her work. It was on January 19, 1981 that Woodman committed suicide by jumping from a Manhattan building.
Woodman’s Work was not introduced to the art world until five years after her death at Wellesley College Museum and now major galleries and museums around the world have collected her work. Even if Francesca Woodman did not attain much recognition during her lifetime, her strikingly beautiful images have impacted and inspired many contemporary artists. Francesca Woodman’s photographs have received much critical acclaim and fascination over, not only because of her simple-ghostly images, but also because of her tragic story. In whatever way people view the images, Francesca Woodman was an extraordinary young talent, and had some of the most distinctive work of her time. Art historians have claimed her one of the greatest and most original photographers of the 20th century. In an article in The Telegraph Art Dealer Anthony D’Offay says, “The 20th century is littered with images by men of women’s bodies, but images of women’s bodies by women are very different. Woodman’s photographs have this refreshing quality of truth. It never occurs to me to speculate about what she would have gone to do. I’m just grateful for what she did.”
Written by Alexis Hagestad
Images Copyright: George and Betty Woodman