Self-portraits – Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman committed suicide in 1981, at the tragically young age of 22, having failed a suicide attempt the previous year (Wikipedia, 2017). There, I’ve said it – as has pretty much every reviewer of her work that I have read; most use it as their starting point, or even as the central theme for discussing Woodman’s work. I find myself questioning the standard analysis (that her photography indicated a troubled mind and foreshadowed her suicide) as being just to trite, too ‘easy’. She had, after all, been photographing since the age of 13 – almost half of her short lifetime, and I doubt that she was suicidal for all that time.

Indeed, some recent commentaries (Gumport 2011, Salter 2012, Keiffer 2016) suggest that Woodman was self-aware and ambitious, with depression only entering the story around 1980 as a result of lack of recognition, refusal of funding, and a failed relationship.

I also wonder about discussing Woodman’s work as a completed oeuvre. Clearly, it is ‘complete’ in the sense that there will be no more of it but a majority of the images I have found online are from her high school and student days (up to late 1978) and have the look of student experiment, cutting loose with subject matter and camera techniques. I suggest that we are looking at the juvenilia of a potentially great artist, tragically unrealised.

Woodman’s photographs (and some surviving video) are varied and fascinating. Almost all feature human figures, herself or other young models/students and in many of them, the use of long exposures has blurred the body almost out of recognition. A large proportion feature nudity (so public display of anything pre-1976 is problematic) or vintage costume, both of which contribute to a timeless (or outside-of-time) quality.

According to Kate Salter, Woodman says the reason for taking so many self portraits was ‘It’s a matter of convenience – I am always available.’ (quoted in Salter 2012)

It is Woodman’s blurred images (examples here and here) that have attracted most comment – probably because of the association with self-effacement, disappearance and her eventual suicide. However, her sharper images in which she gazes direct to camera seem (to me) to say more about the artist herself. ‘Me and My Roomate, Boulder, Colorado is straight cheesecake, a reminder of happy student days. An untitled image from the ‘Polka Dots‘ collection, and the well-known Providence, Rhode Island ,1976 show a wary, slightly haunted expression in images with surreal elements. In contrast, in ‘From a Series on Angels, Rome, Italy 1977she wears a rather stern and slightly intimidating expression.

Overall, a complex character and a great loss of potential, but interpreting her work as presaging her suicide is just too simplistic.

References

Gumport, E  (2011) The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman [online] Available at <http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2011/01/24/long-exposure-francesca-woodman/&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Keiffer, M (2016) Haunted Genius: The Tragic Life and Death of Francesca Woodman [online] Available at <https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/new-york/articles/haunted-genius-the-tragic-life-and-death-of-francesca-woodman/&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Salter, K (2102) Blurred genius: the photographs of Francesca Woodman  [online] Available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9279676/Blurred-genius-the-photographs-of-Francesca-Woodman.html&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Wikipedia (2017) Francesca Woodman [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesca_Woodman&gt; [Accessed 13/9/17].

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