It is difficult not to read Woodman’s many self-portraits – she produced over five hundred during her short lifetime – as alluding to a troubled state of mind. She committed suicide at the age of twenty-two (Bright, 2010: 25).
In August 2014 the journalist Rachel Cooke interviewed the parents of Francesca Woodman (b. 1958), she writes:
Woodman committed suicide in 1981, at the age of just 22. As a result, it is her self-portraits – funny, artful, neurotic, and occasionally painfully honest – that have always attracted the most attention. People want to see this extraordinary lost girl; they remain convinced that her primary subject was herself. But her parents refute this. … Their memory of Francesca is that she wasn’t a “deeply serious intellectual”; she was witty, amusing. “She had a good time,” says Betty [Woodman’s mother]. “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 psychoanalyse 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.” (Cooke, 2014)
It is indicative of the ambiguity of Woodman’s work that Cooke disagrees with her parents on the subject of a particular photograph:
Consider the image in question [see fig.1.] … : it has a wonderfully secretive quality. What happens in a museum when all the visitors go home? In this one, a kind of ghost appears in the form of Woodman, who can be glimpsed behind a large vitrine in which sits the huge and alarmingly toothy skull of some unidentifiable animal. “Francesca couldn’t make her mind up,” says Betty [Woodman’s mother]. “First, she wanted to be naked. Then she thought she’d wear a leotard.” Not that I should get the wrong idea. “This wasn’t a performance. She was concentrating on the picture. That was why she didn’t want people around. She didn’t want any distractions.” I look at the photograph again, but I can’t agree. Francesca’s head is tilted back, her mouth is slightly open, her fingers are stretched wide over the glass of the vitrine. Surely it is quite clear that she has seduction in mind. However wild, however toothy, however dead, this strange animal, you gather, will soon be putty in her hands (Cooke, 2014).
That Woodman’s self-portraits were not ‘a performance’ is disputed also by the critic Jackie Higgins who writes of Woodman’s self-portrait photograph ‘Self-deceit #1, Rome 1978’ (see fig.2.):
The title questions the notion of authenticity in the practice of self-portraiture. Indeed much of Woodman’s work examines the idea of the self as something performed, rather than revealed (Higgins, 2012: 469).
Another critic states baldly that, ‘her [Woodman] work has been described as ‘obsessively autobiographical’, but it reveals no profound truths about the artist’ (Durden, 2014:378). Discussing another image in the ‘Self-deceit’ series (above), ‘Self-Deceit #4 (Roma)’ (see fig.3.), the same critic remarks:
She [Woodman] uses it [a mirror] to mask and hide her face. In relationship to women, mirrors are a familiar attribute of vanity and narcissism. Woodman upsets this relationship. The mirrors reflect nothing in her picture; it opens a blank void that challenges and refutes the viewer’s and the camera’s gaze. … the camera seeks to fix, measure and contain, while Woodman’s performances are a challenge and affront to such a device (Durden, 2014:378).
In several self- portraits it could be argued that Woodman seeks to ‘challenge and affront’ (above) the camera, producing blurred ghostly images (see fig 4 and fig. 5.). One of Woodman’s first genuine self-portraits has been described thus:
The artist seems always to be anticipating her own disappearance. In one of her first genuine self-portraits, which she produced as a boarding school student in the early 1970s, Woodman creeps naked from the forest, eyes closed. In another, taken a few years later [see fig. 6.], it appears that the roots of a tree on a riverbank are seizing her naked body from the water—or that she is transforming into a tree herself, her pale, flowing hair and slender leg as soft and tentacular as roots. The tree, whose trunk seems to emit a white, alien light, is in a graveyard (Gumport, 2011).
What evidence is there for the opinion on Woodman’s work – ‘it is difficult not to read Woodman’s many self-portraits as alluding to a troubled state of mind’ — stated in the quotation above?
Undoubtedly Woodman had a troubled mind: her first suicide attempt was in ‘the autumn of 1980. She survived, received psychiatric treatment, and moved in with her parents’ (Gumport, 2011). Her photographic style has merit independent of her suicide:
Since her rediscovery in the mid-1980s, Woodman has continued to attract the attention of audiences and critics. Her work is in the permanent collections of many museums—among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art—and her style has so informed other professional and amateur photographers that effects she pioneered now appear in catalogues and ad campaigns and fashion spreads. She can even be credited with the coining of visual clichés: shots of women’s legs, a Woodman favourite, are now considered the adolescent’s stock in trade (Gumport, 2011).
In the film made about the Francesca Woodman, ‘The Woodmans’ (2010):
We hear and see only Woodman’s friends and family, her parents in particular …. Everyone agrees that Woodman’s work is too often evaluated in light of her suicide, her ghostly portraits miscast as experiments in self-effacement. “Francesca Woodman,” a friend says firmly, “was not trying to disappear.” (Gumport, 2011).
In her review of the film Elizabeth Gumport explains that the film:
dispenses with the image some may have of the young photographer as a tortured naif, whose suffering was uncorrupted by ambition or the desire to do anything besides disappear. Francesca cultivated her reputation and knew, as her friend Betsy Berne wrote, “how to play the game.” Having artists for parents, one friend informs Willis [the film’s director], made success seem imperative, and obscurity particularly painful. It was necessary, she told her father, to make at least one career-related phone call every day. The process of creating a coherent public image is explored in her journal, where she often referred to herself in the third person. In one 1975 entry, she mentions having shown the journal to a friend. “Does it,” she writes, “read as a book one wonders.” (Gumport, 2011).
Certainly the evidence is there in Woodman’s photographs that they reflect a tragically troubled mind. But equally they are works of studied, deliberate artistry (The Observer, 2010) that still have influence decades after their production.
This post continues in’Project 1 #2 Elina Brotherus’ at: https://cormac513273.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/project-1-2-elina-brotherus/
Bright, Susan (2010) Autofocus. The self-portrait in contemporary photography. London: Thames & Hudson
Cooke, Rachel (2014) ‘Searching for the real Francesca Woodman’. In: The Guardian [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/aug/31/searching-for-the-real-francesca-woodman (Accessed on 06.01.15)
Durden, Paul (2014) Photography Today. New York: Phaidon
Gumport, Elizabeth (2011) The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman [online blog] In: nybooks.com/ At: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/jan/24/long-exposure-francesca-woodman/ (Accessed on 06.01.15)
Higgins, Jackie (2012) ‘Self-deceit #1 Rome, Italy, 1978’ In: Hacking (ed.) Photography The Whole Story. London: Thames & Hudson. pp. 468 – 469
The Observer (2010) Francesca Woodman: Now you see her, but most of the time you don’t… [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2010/nov/21/francesca-woodman-photography#/?picture=368861087&index=1 (Accessed on 06.01.15)
The Woodmans. (2010). [film] USA: C. Scott Willis.
List of Illustrations
Figure 1 Francesca Woodman (1975-1976) Space2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975- 1976 [Gelatin silver estate print] At: http://i.guim.co.uk/static/w-620/h–/q-95/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2014/8/27/1409141016986/1e96bfb8-55a8-4943-9eaa-90b774132a19-620×620.jpeg (Accessed on 06.01.15)
Figure 2 Francesca Woodman (1978) Self-deceit #1 Rome, Italy, 1978 [Silver print] At: http://i.guim.co.uk/static/w-700/h–/q-95/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2010/11/19/1290171517753/Self-deceit-1-004.jpg (Accessed on 06.01.15)
Figure 3 Francesca Woodman (1977 – 1978) Self-Deceit #4 (Roma) [gelatine silver print] At: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/media/38/collection/2012AA43481.jpg (Accessed on 06.01.15)
Figure 4 Francesca Woodman (1977) From Angel series, Rome, 1977 At: http://www.nybooks.com/media/img/blogimages/fw120_b_jpg_600x500_q85.jpg (Accessed on 06.01.15)
Figure 5 Francesca Woodman (1976) House #3, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976 At: http://www.nybooks.com/media/img/blogimages/woodman-house-3_jpg_600x638_q85.jpg (Accessed on 06.01.15)
Figure 6 Francesca Woodman (1976) Untitled, Boulder, Colorado 1976 At: http://www.nybooks.com/media/img/blogimages/4_jpg_600x364_q85.jpg (Accessed on 06.01.15)