Francesca Woodman

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 was an American photographer (April 3, 1958 – January 19, 1981). She was born in Denver, Colorado, but later relocated to study at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. She relocated to New York City in 1979, but her life sadly came to an end on a January day in New York’s Lower East Side, when she committed suicide at the age of 22.

Her suicide drapes a long shadow over her personal works of art, as well as her professional photographic frame, seeping undercurrents of sadness into her art, uncovered in a photograph as a white mist seen through a mirror. One must try to approach her imagery for the image alone, irrespective of her death. Still, her suicide sinks into her photography, penetrating just as deeply into the eye as the imagery itself. The eye-line surrenders to the photograph, and the image cocoons itself completely.

Francesca was born into a family of artists. Her father, George Woodman, was a painter and a photographer, and her mother, Betty, was a sculptor. She loved Italy, and found her strongest artistic influences in the Italian Capital, Rome. She went to Italy with her family every Summer, and spent a year studying in Rome (1977-1978). It was a productive period for Francesca – being fluent in Italian made it easy to meet other artists, and her first small showing was held at the Libreria Maldoror, a bookshop and gallery that specialised in surrealist art.

Her photography comes to life on a negative image. All in all, during her short career, Francesca created as many as 10,000 negatives. Her prints are 8 x 10 inches or smaller, which ‘works to produce an intimate experience between viewer and photograph’. At the heart of her arresting photography lies this sleepy intimacy – an intimacy created through nudity and a close, constricted relationship with her objects. In many of her photographic shots, her body is thoroughly entwined with her surroundings. Every single photograph shines a faded, drained colour, radiating her presence into the present day, despite being taken over thirty years ago.

Reality becomes clouded. Francesca, with subtlety, changes our perceptions, and our unique vision, of reality itself. Her photographs strike a dagger into any kind of lingering comfort zone there may be, sending sensations flickering with unease to new destinations as she works to re-arrange our perceptions. Everything that was once familiar and comforting now feels strange, dislocated out of place. She displayed shy characteristics, hiding the very personal features of the face; eyes that reveal the clearer windows to the soul, and yet she also exposed her body.

She went beyond the pane of understanding and human reason, into a world of surrealism that existed within an intimate cage resembling a frame. Nightmarish images are none the less soft to the receiving eye, a black and white beautiful ballet reciting a thousand traumatic events.

Her photography puts in focus the image of Francesca herself. Occasionally, other young women were present, usually nude or streaked as an indistinct blur, shining a bleak, chrome light on the female body and feminine vulnerability. Her photographs, although surreal, were emotionally revealing, imbued with the unknown, and incredibly open. One repeating feature of Francesca’s work is that of an obscured face and a concealed expression – you don’t need expressions to expose emotion. Her self portrait at thirteen ‘denies her face to the camera’, and in so doing, places a mask over the onlooker. Even at such a young age – as a teenager – her positional and photographic skill was evident, as was her preparation and meticulous pre-planning; it’s visible in every shot, but never in a detracting way.

First Exposures

Youthful and beautiful, Francesca was influenced by gothic and surrealist art. Claustrophobic and cloying, her photographs are poised, posed and potent; they can produce an eerie shudder as she enters the photograph, the visible to the invisible, at one with her eerie environment. Her photographs shimmer with bleak light, a beacon for the afterlife, like a ghost box tuned into a spectral frequency. And her work remains astonishingly mature. Tempting you in, Francesca contrasts the soft, prone flesh of the body with the jagged, uncompromising structures of life that surround us all.

She appears at one with her surroundings, but the set-up and the placement is never cosy – far from it. Instead, her positioning and interaction seems like a constriction or a kind of suffocation, brought on by the body instead of any other paranormal entity. The effect is intentional; through her props, we know something isn’t right, but the solution remains silenced on the tip of Francesca’s hushed finger.

She appears naked in a lot of her photos. Despite shallow claims that she used her photography to show off her young, feminine body, everything you see is for artistic effect. Inserting her body into the photograph ensured that it was her presence within it; it was a true reflection on her artistic style and her personality, rather than a vain attempt at self-promotion or self-indulgence. Her passion for her art couldn’t be more clearly in focus. Her shyness when it came to obscuring a face unraveled when it came to revealing her body. Hers are apparitions that continue to linger long after the lids have closed, and only a true artist could accomplish that. They are spirits trapped, with nowhere to go apart from erasure, and this reflects itself with a suffocating enclosure – her photograph. Although a self-expression of freedom, artistry and creativity, the photographic borders are also a cage. Her 8 x 10 inch prints are an encounter with claustrophobia, staring out of black and white eyes into the art galleries and exhibitions of today – a true kind of exposure, of nudity – for everyone to see.

Francesca’s work isn’t always immediately oppressive, but the muggy air could transform even a colour image into a negative one. Her photography is haunting; not only because of the relationship between herself, her subject and the camera-eye, but there remains the sense of a presence concealed in the photograph itself – something paranormal – pulling you into the shot closer and closer. As you stare into the photograph, secrets fail. You begin to see flickers of Francesca’s character and personality. Among the floorboards and the silent, still chairs lies a struggle to free the body. Even the furniture tries to possess the body, and drag it into oblivion.

Her images, many with only a date and a location, transcend space and only leave a ghosted scent of reality behind. The naming and dating may imply simplicity, so as not to distract the viewer, or to increase the aura within the image without any distraction. Only a scribbled sentence was written underneath – ‘To Be An Angel’, from her Angel series, was one of them. Any reason behind the naming (it may just have been artistic preference) seems secondary. Her world exists both inside and outside a vacant void.

Placing herself in the photograph, Francesca herself often appears as a frightened or cautious young woman (her haunting expression, eye-to-eye, can be clearly seen in her series Polka Dots). Face to face, she crouches timidly in an otherwise abandoned room, cornered by the unseen amid walls that are chalked of decay. Our position is the position of her fear. Plaster hangs against the wall, peeling like strands of dirty hair. Her striking imagery seems to be scraping against the conscious mind as well as the run-down, ruined environment coughing out the ages of dust like breathing apparitions; an interior choked with deterioration.

Ruins could be shrines for the sinister or the sublime, lost inside faded, crumbling stone. Draped behind a white sheet, a figure is blurred – a technique that she used to astounding effect – concealed in obscurity and laced with mystique. It isn’t just symbolic. Objects placed at angles seem to suggest symbols, but the objects may also be the suggested objectification of a woman’s body. A hidden face and the adoration of the naked figure may indicate her thoughts, offering enough of a glimpse to trace a way out of the very photograph and into the mind of the viewer. Francesca’s photography could be disturbing as well as brilliant. Taking in her work is an eerie sight, where what could be the thin, white strands of ectoplasm link from one entity to one mouth. Her body may be blurred, faded and then erased, or suspended between the stages; it’s a shock, because she reveals our own flitting existence on this Earth. Her body is as fragile as the wings of a butterfly, revealing an attraction, adoration and fascination for the figure; one that is susceptible to the elements, and to the decay scraping against the forlorn, torn wallpaper of the skin.

Angels Are Among Us

‘On Being an Angel’ – four words completing a phrase, written underneath one of the photographs taken from her ‘Angel’ series (Rome, 1977). If we look closer, the words uncover her desire for transfiguration, and freedom in the act. It’s also a kind of ascension, made possible through art.

Shrouded in escapism, freedom is a physical desire. Looking up to the Heavens, Francesca has an almost sensual look in her eyes. Her direct gaze into the lens, into the eyes of a stranger, is perhaps a true uncovering; where her nudity is greater than the revealed flesh, sensitively open to reaction – another sign pointing towards vulnerability. In another photograph, her body hangs suspended, just in front of a door and inches closer to the Heavens. Is this her longing for release, for an ascension out of the mortal, physical body?

Yet, the environment around her never reflects the beauty of a sunrise. These are angelic beings lost to less than angelic places. Her often ghostly images – where the truth of the image is either suspended or suppressed entirely – are covered by white sheets of surrealism. The real beauty is that the suggestion comes from our own minds, connected by her suggestive props, poses and positions.

A black veil wisps across her face, one thin arm loose and the other disappearing. She looks unemotional, detached and, for all purposes, erased from the room, her figure vanishing as if trapped between unseen dimensions. Taking a trip towards the sinister, this is a real apparition.

She took many of her photographs wrapped in the roots of trees, where her once-human form changed subtly into branches for arms. She seems to zone in on the concept of resurrection; gazing face-on with mortality as if it was the blank, staring glass of the camera lens. She wasn’t just photographing the surreal; she was enclosed inside her own art, taking the cages of the medium and transforming it into performance art.

Optical Illusions

Phantoms lie inside mirrors, placed centrally and carefully to draw your attention to the clouded presence within.

Her use of long exposure times could reflect traumatic psychological states, where the blurring of the figure meets the blurring psyche of the mind. Throughout the blur, her body is angled, curving as smoothly and as perfectly as the sculpted jars. It is often said that any kind of space, in this case the interior of a house or studio, can ‘absorb’ the emotional currents that are discharged on a day to day basis, seeping into the very walls and repeating traumatic incidents over and over again. This kind of residue invites ghosts and phantoms to haunt a once-frequented area. Francesca seems to seep in with the surroundings, and one of many distressing thoughts, circling like mental phantoms, is that it’s unclear if she’s been taken against her will or not. Held hostage by the space, enwrapped in arms forever.

She vanishes.

Just out of sight, she crouches – maybe these ghosts never left.

Naked, she lies along the banks of a river, beside the roots of an imposing tree. A graveyard is just visible in the background as a sick presence of white light emanates from the heart of the tree. It’s an unhealthy aura that is as spectral as it is beautiful. Caressing the roots, as if she desired, or even craved, to enter nature more fully, Francesca lies down. It may be a kind of sexual suggestion – she leaves your mind to fill in the blanks. Her ghostly, see-through image is let loose, crawling and clambering through a headstone, as if repeating the concept of resurrection. Francesca herself referred to these photographs as ‘ghost pictures’.

Fade To Blank

In her final days, she reportedly suffered from depression, due in part for her supposed failure to attract attention, artistic recognition and success, as well as a relationship that was starting to strain and bearing a smattering of cracks. Her photography is anything but a failure, as the years have proved. Now, over thirty years since her passing, her work continues to receive worldwide critical acclaim – if anything, her work is still gaining in popularity and admiration, highlighting how artistically far ahead she was. Her promise was delivered, despite departing on the cusp of her life, her youthful years, one January day. – Francesca Woodman (1958-1981)


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1 Comment

  1. says: Lid Bano

    I am not sure who wrote this article, but it really guessed a to how I’ve felt since I accidentally ran into a documentary about Francesca W. on public tv.
    Since then, one of paragraphs applies to me, I feel like the ghastly unhealthy world of her photos deeply haunts me, and is casting a shadow over my reality, and I cannot seem to escape it no matter how hard I try. I’ve never encountered art that has stayed with me so, and least not in a negative way.
    It is very unpleasant and foreign to me. I’ts been 3 weeks I’ve felt like this, and I feel drained physically and mentally!!! Does anyone else experience the same effect, and how to shake it off? It is very unpleasant. I am not sure how all the people who go to her exhibition shake it off? Her art is so well done and artfully, I cannot seem to look at her photos without feeling a deep terror in my stomach, which has not not left me for three weeks now.
    I wanna shake it off.

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