Francesca Woodman: The Naked Prisoner

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….

This quote is from a letter to a friend written, not by a 19th century Romantic male poet from the Sturm und Drang era, but by a late 20th century American woman photographer named Francesca Woodman. She was born in Denver, Colorado on April 3, 1958 and committed suicide by jumping from a window of her East 12th Street New York City loft on January 19, 1981. She was twenty-two.

Of such stuff—precocity, a headlong rush of  brilliant and eclectic work, then an early demise—are artistic legends made. Woodman’s life and art are a near seamless blend of all the clichés of an artist dying young. It is little wonder that in the past several decades, her life and photography have been appropriated by fellow artists and critics all too eager to ride the pale horse of this metaphor into the twilight of ambiguity and mystery. Her very identity has become the currency of “body” artists, "picture generation" photographers, feminists, psychiatric papers, surrealists, serial imagists, and students searching forever new theses topics. Francesca Woodman has become commodified even as most of the body of her work remains unknown, held in private trust by her family. Only two hundred of her images were published in her lifetime, dribs and drabs since; even the most authoritative monograph of her work written by Chris Townsend for Phaidon Press only hints at the unknown, undiscovered work yet to be seen.—Francesca Woodman book link

At thirteen, her artist father, George, gave her a camera, a Yashica 2 ¼ x 2 ¼. It was the principal camera she employed throughout her single decade long career. Her first acknowledged photograph is a premonition, a lodestone, in fact, of what lay ahead in her work.

Many of the tropes of her photography are already present in this image—herself as model, a hidden, unrecognizable form, a surrealistic, ambiguous setting, soft focus time exposure, and the looming presence of the camera itself. Much has been written about the use of the cable release in this self-portrait, as a surrogate umbilical. Throughout Woodman’s work, even when there is no self-awareness of the camera, the viewer is always meant to be part of the drama as voyeur. Much writing has cited the quickly evolving influences in her work, that even as she was creating this singular, unique corpus, she was also exploring and absorbing techniques and stylistic tics of slightly older, more established artists such as Duane Michals, Deborah Turbeville, and Jerry Uelsmann. During her study at RISD she explored a broad range of historical influences as well. It was also a period of clear emergence of feminist identity in all the arts, but especially in photography. Woodman also tilled the historical furrows of male photographers who had used the nude female model as icon and metaphor, the “male gaze,” as messengers for their own work.

Bill Brandt’s wide angle and pinhole nudes, Andre Kertesz’ distortion mirror studies, Edward Weston’s use of the body as organic form, Man Ray’s exploration of nude as surrealist, fetishistic object, were all absorbed, even “appropriated” by this youthful student for her own purposes. When asked about why she photographed herself so often, her coy reply was simply, “It’s a matter of convenience. I am always available.”

A two-minute video serves as an introduction to this haunting body of work, its fleeting glimpses serving as a tantalizing invitation to look longer and deeper.

The Phaidon Press monograph subtitled, “Scattered in Space and Time,” (a quote from Proust’s La Prisonière), is divided into a series of critical essays that explore multiple aspects of Woodman’s work. Using her own transformative evolution as a pivot point, it richly explores through photo history the major themes of “staged” photography. Most of the subjects that I have written about in these weekly essays have been about photojournalists, artists who engage the vicissitudes of our world, its external drama. Woodman’s images are a kind of template for an entirely different strain, one that has its roots embedded as deeply in the photography medium as those of the documentarians, but one that belongs to a strain that has found increasingly more wall space in the hippest of Chelsea galleries, even ones that do not normally feature photography. There is a certain solace to the viewer and collector in looking at staged, set designed photography, especially that of self-portrait body images that evoke sexual thrawl. It is immediate, close-focused, self-referential. Normally. But Woodman’s images are neither stimulants nor palliatives. They are uniquely disquieting.

The soft, vulnerable human body, especially the nude body of a young woman, juxtaposed against fragments of abandoned ruins, creates a tension that remains for a long time. There are also many images here that place themselves more squarely in the tradition of classical nude photography, an exploration of form, texture, and light—the body as an aesthetic landscape.

It is easy to forget when one looks at a large number of Woodman’s photographs with their strong sense of self that she was in fact barely out of her teens when much of the work was created. Her personal vision is so clear most of the time that it is easy to overlook the fact that she was still very much working her way through many influences, from teachers at Boulder, Colorado and RISD, from her tenures in Rome (where she spent much time at the Libreria Maldoror Surrealist Gallery), to a late fellowship at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, where she began to explore multiple image composite pieces of a conceptualist bent.

Another video presents nearly three-dozen of her photographs with the haunting music of the Cirque de Soleil’s Vai Vedrai. The images are all presented in a full frame, static mode that allows you to more clearly see their formal properties.

It is clear how carefully each one of these images is wrought. In fact, much like a more formalist artist such as Teun Hocks, Woodman often made sketches of what she planned to photograph. This was especially helpful to her when she was using models other than herself. A prime example of this is the cover photo of the Phaidon book at the beginning of this essay. The drawings of her face meant to be held by the models as a mask in front of their own faces, is indicative of her conceptualizing mode. Woodman is the model on the right in this image. She had planned it to be a portrait of four nude women. When the fourth model did not show, she substituted herself and tacked the photo for the fourth one to the wall.

Conceptual motifs became a larger part of her work these last several years of her life. Whether she felt she had outgrown or used up the ambiguous, even vaporous mode of self-portraiture, it is evident that the changeling in her, the constant search of identity was ongoing. Her suicide has been cast in many interpretations, from simple depression at a love affair run off the rails, to an inability to move beyond a sense of essential victimization of the female artist. It is this latter guise that has been favored by several feminist critics who see Woodman as a poster child for the oppression of women in the arts, if not in society at large. My own feeling is that this is a convenient, even simplistic reading—even one that demeans the integrity and strength of her work. From the beginning, Woodman chose to use herself as subject. In critical cant, author Chris Townsend has written, “She is one of those select artists who, whilst exploring identity through self-representation, also offers us a critique of those formal conditions that structure her medium.” What Woodman did was quite simple. She appropriated to herself many of the conceits and tropes used by generations of male photographers who have used woman as a “canvas” to paint their own visions. Woodman has made a full frontal assault on this tradition and has actually empowered her own body as subject, both embracing the tradition of erotic object and turning it into an almost metaphysical dialectic.  If this kind of strength resided deep in her psyche, why choose suicide?

Most artists engage the world outside themselves in the creation of their work. It is even the lure of the other that attracts many of them, especially novelists of great human aspiration like Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens, and Shakespeare who see the world largely as a stage outside themselves. They often live full, even long lives. It is the other tradition, that of the inward looking, even solipsistic artist, that confronts the question of existence more closely, more personally. This is nowhere more obvious than with an artist whose own body is subject to the work. Whether the existing personality creates the persona embodied in the work or whether the work transforms the person is one of those chicken or egg speculations that are ultimately futile to try to resolve. I think of the recently deceased novelist David Foster Wallace, subject of one of my early essays, whose work seems to be about an outside world, but is in fact really about the intricate, hermetic musings of his own mind.

John’s Bailiwick—“A Hideous Loss: David Foster Wallace” blog entry

Was the labyrinth of self too much for him as it may have been for Woodman? No one can truly crawl inside the remotest chambers of another’s mind.

What does seem clear to me is that Woodman’s brief period of luminescence in the art world was not something she actively sought. This is not to suggest that she shied from recognition, but she may have been one of the last of a lineage of artists who were nearly subsumed into their work. The irony with Woodman is that she was also its subject. She died at the beginning of a decade that became ever more strident in the art world, where an explosion of the Warhol idea of the artist as celebrity trumped the artist as mediator and explorer in an arcane universe of being.  The so-called “Pictures” generation of Levine. Prince and Sherman that came on her heels appropriated or re-generated existing imagery in ways that led directly to the further commodification of art as marketplace collectible.

Could she have foreseen that? Could she have foreseen that the brave introspection that was the hallmark of her work would soon be turned upside down and that the identity artist would soon become a commodity herself in the art world? Would she as consequence have adopted a more overt and occluded public persona like Warhol or Sherman, or perhaps even become a downtown “performance artist” employing her very body as a commercial product? Are Madonna and now Lady Gaga pop culture’s appropriation of such a persona a logical end point to Woodman’s own inherent self-absorption? Looking at her work from the perspective of a now fissured art world where there is little distance between artist, performer and sales product, one can almost see the innocent young girl looking back at you.

(Shortly after posting this essay I received a comment from filmmaker Scott Willis that his documentary on the Woodman family will screen in January at the Film Forum in NYC. It received an award at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film is a feature length look at her life and work as well as that of her brother Charlie and of both parents, painter/photographer George and ceramicist Betty. It is a compelling and emotional examination of the artistic life.  It includes rare B/W video footage made by Francesca revealing the same themes and concerns as explored in her photography. Here is a link to view the trailer: )



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