Am I in the picture? Am I getting in or out of it? I could be a ghost, an animal or a dead body, not just this girl standing on the corner.
Francesca Woodman (1958 -1981) is, was (and probably always will be) an enigma. Her work is full of tension and spectral explorations of the female form, but her early death at the age of 22 has left scholars questioning Woodman’s artistic intentions. Were these photographs an exploration of the artist’s internal angst? Or simply the early works of a college student who favoured a surrealist aesthetic?
Born in 1958, to ceramicists George and Betty Woodman, Francesca Woodman was surrounded by artistic practice and creativity from a young age. Growing up, her family home in Colorado would become a temporary sanctuary to the likes of David Hockney, Richard Serra and other famous artists, as they made tours of America. As an adolescent, Woodman received her first camera – a Yashica 2 ¼ x 2 ¼, which was a gift from her father and would continue to be her camera of choice throughout her short career. Her first self portrait (aged 13) shows the same defiant and graceful Surrealist self-representation that would not only typify her later work, but define her artistic practice.
The young photographer attended college at Rhode Island School of design in 1975, and between 1977 and 1978, she studied in Rome (a familiar city where she had spent many summers as a child). In 1979, Woodman moved to New York with the intention of beginning her career as an artist, and in 1980 was awarded Artist-In-Residence at the distinguished MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.
Unfortunately, upon returning to New York, her work was met with much indifference, and it is only in the last decade has there been a resurgence of interest in her photography and videography, the latter of which became a method with which to expand her creative projects.
Aside from her photographic work, Francesca Woodman produced several livre d’artiste including Portrait of a Reputation (date unknown), Quaderno dei Dettati e dei Temi (c.1978), Quaderno Raffaello (c.1977), Portraits Friends Equations (c.1979) and Angels, Calendars (c.1977). However, just one book (Some Distorted Interior Geometries, 1981) was published during her lifetime – only a few weeks before the artist’s suicide. The book itself is made from a repurposed, Italian exercise notepad with pale pink pages, pasted with photographs and annotated with scratchy, sprawling marginalia. In it, we see Woodman exploring her fascination with time and identity, as she writes: “These things arrived from my Grandmother’s. They make me think about where I fit in this odd geometry of time.”
This theme of pasting down, erasing and overlapping can also be seen in Quaderno Raffaello which includes a selection of taped-down transparencies instead of opaque photographs, allowing the printed page to be visible through the image. Woodman takes power from choosing what the viewer is allowed to see – the process of covering, uncovering and recovering sections of images or book pages is also used in regards to her own body.
If surrealism can be described as a visual, oral or physical montage of unsettling juxtapositions, then Woodman’s work certainly subscribes to this definition. We see the artist using a variety of motifs that have been associated with the Surrealist Movement, including birds, gloves (another method with which to conceal and reveal the body), mirrors and phantom-like figures, which the artist sometimes shrouds in white sheets or large sections of dusty, floral wallpaper. Her photographs are characterised by wraith-like female figures and ghostly presences which begin to dissipate like vapour. She referred to these long-exposure images as Ghost Photos, and her work has been likened to the spirit photography that gained popularity after WWI. Setting her phantoms against the backdrop of crumbling walls in derelict buildings and using delayed exposure times, Woodman created blurry shapes and distorted the features of her protagonists, allowing them to appear stationary when in motion and fragmented yet whole.
More often than not these ‘phantoms’ are nude with their faces obscured, and often the models bear a striking resemblance to Woodman herself. The women are objectified and creature-like, becoming part of the fabric of the abandoned buildings in which they roam. Woodman’s work is nightmarish, and toes-the-line between rationality and hysteria – do these images predict the artist’s own inevitable self-effacement? Woodman’s early death by her own hand at the age of 22 allows us to question her creative motives, and an 1980 entry from her diary displays her clear desire to “disappear”: “I finally managed to try 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 other artefacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things.”
In 1980, Woodman was diagnosed with profound depression, an illness that would plague her for the rest of her brief life. She survived her first suicide attempt in the Autumn of the same year, but in January of 1981, she was found dead after jumping from the window of a building on the East Side of New York.