Thoughts On : Francesca Woodman

Untitled, Boulder Colorado, 1976
Francesca Woodman, born in 1958 the daughter of two artists - a painter and a ceramicist- began taking photographs in earnest after being gifted a camera when she was in her mid-teens. By the time she began her studies in 1975 at the Rhode Island School of Design she was a prolific, determined photographer focussed on success. In January of 1981 she threw herself out of a loft window in New York damaging her face so badly that she lay unidentified in the city morgue until someone finally identified her by recognising her clothing. In viewing her work now, ironically, we recognise the hallmarks of her style, but perhaps don't see the real face of Francesca Woodman.
The work she left behind, over 800 black and white photographic images, focus on abandoned, empty spaces; graveyards; found objects and blurry figures. Her work is surreal and obscure, delicate and ethereal. As she often used her own naked form in her work, it is also seen as incredibly personal.
Woodman is best known for her self-portraits and in light of her suicide these are commonly read as expressions of inner turmoil and psychological difficulties. In the photographs, knowing that she killed herself by her own hand, we easily see a woman who wanted to hide or obscure herself through disappearing. She situates herself behind things and uses long exposures to create almost invisible echoes of the human form. She took location photography in in graveyards (the final resting place), museums and in other abandoned, empty, forgotten spaces. 
Untitled, 1975 -80
There are many criticisms of the reading of her work as self-expression though, Woodman herself said that the reason for her prolific use of her own body was not out of narcissism or self-reflection but “… a matter of convenience—I’m always available.”. She did sometimes use models in her work but due to the obscured nature of the figures in her photographs, even those in which she used other people have a tendency to be mis-identified as self-portraits.
As you look more closely at Woodman’s work, you can see the dedication she had for her craft. For her compositions Woodman wraps herself around objects such as bowls of eels and doors, climbs into rivers and entwines herself in tree roots or clambers through gravestones. She photographs herself as disembodied legs next to body prints and as a dancing figure between draped sheets in empty rooms. She crouches, squeezes, bends, seeks out strange corners and empty places to situate herself in. Even when the figure is still, there is life and movement in every photograph, a sense of doing, or having just done.
Untitled, 1975 - 80
The fact is though, by the time she successfully committed suicide in 1981 she had already been a psychiatric patient, diagnosed with depression, and was on prescribed medication. In 1980 she wrote to a friend that “My life at this point is like very old coffee-cup sediment and I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments . . . instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things…”.
There are conflicting accounts of her interests and how happy or unhappy she was depending whether the information is coming from her parents or friends. Her suicide has been linked by her father to an unsuccessful application for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Certainly Woodman’s career was incredibly important to her. She said to her father at one point that she had to make at least one career focused phone call per day, but her determination to succeed also took a tremendous toll on her. As Woodman’s friend Betsy Berne says of her “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.” Woodman had attempted a suicide the year before, also attributed to her lack of success in securing work for herself in photography, but additionally said to be linked to an ongoing difficult personal relationship.
We can never know what went through her mind in the final hours of her life and she never matured into a woman who would have been able to work through her illness. Add to this the certain air of romanticism in Woodman’s action of erasing herself before ever fulfilling or achieving what she potentially could have, and it is only natural for us to view her work through the prism of that tragedy and the depression that preceded it.
Untitled, Rhode Island, 1975
Whenever we as individuals look at a piece of art, we project our own understandings onto it in order to read it. Many artists work under a manifesto which explains their intent to us, but if we do not have that manifesto to shape the framework of our understanding, we can only use our own templates to draw conclusions with. So the viewer simply can’t help reading things into the empty spaces and blurred figures Woodman depicts. Even with her talent and obvious enthusiasm for Surrealism Woodman was so young when she was taking these photographs, she may not even have been aware of what she was subconsciously expressing in her imagery. 
Woodman had tremendous determination and commitment to her art, but as she became famous posthumously, the only way to understand the photographs is to look at them. Without Woodman’s definitive take, and not knowing why she left the world, the viewer reads these photographs like a detective. Whether intentionally or not, Woodman has littered her photography with tantalising symbols, puzzles and clues to herself and her story. Her parents and friends deny her photography is an inner pain expressed but she clearly did feel something huge and terrible or she would not have attempted suicide twice. The issue with listening to the parents and friends is that just as the viewer sees art from within the framework of their own understanding - so too will Woodman’s loved ones.
Ultimately whatever we see in her work might tell us far more our own psychology. In amongst all of her symbology, if we look hard enough, we can see our own demons reflected back in the gaps of her missing manifesto.

Sources/Further and Alternate Reading:

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