Thirty years ago today, Francesca Woodman jumped to her death from the window of a Lower East Side Manhattan loft. A photographer, she was prodigious and original; she had been a star pupil at the Rhode Island School of Design and a contemporary of the Surrealists in Rome. She left behind 800 negatives and 120 published images, which later would multiply into nearly 500 and comprise one of the most stunning—and studied—oeuvres in American photography.
She was 22 years old when she died.
Woodman, like Sylvia Plath, is inseparable from her suicide. She disappeared into her fragmentary, hallucinatory, black-and-white (but seemingly all grey) images, which were mostly of her (mostly nude) self, but never of her whole self. Something, often her face, was always obscured: by a shard of paper, a cloud of hair, a wing of light… She used long exposures to capture objects that were no longer there, or maybe never were.
Even in the “real” world, she was never fully present. She did not relate to the contemporary moment, loved mostly Victorian or Gothic literature, wore only vintage clothing and could not even pretend to understand pop culture. She has been called a feminist, but she was not political or aware enough to be a feminist, and felt guilty about it; her best friend said so, and also that she had the most intense girl crushes. She loved women, although she was ambivalent about being one of them. She was infatuated with the writer Gertrude Stein and obsessed with the photographer Deborah Turbeville, whose work—along with Duane Michals’ and Miroslav Tichy’s—most directly precedes (and now seems to echo) Woodman’s.
“The subject of her self-portraiture,” writes Chris Townsend in the definitive 2006 Phaidon monograph Francesca Woodman, “is provisional and contingent, losing itself at the very moment that it is defined.” Had she stayed alive, the chance that she would have become a prominent figure in the art world is small. She was not like Cindy Sherman, the great self-portraitist; Sherman was pop-savvy and posed safely in costume, never truly naked or vulnerable or afraid. Woodman liked to dress up, but she could never be anything more than herself and, in fact, she appeared to be less—sometimes much less, dangerously close to nothing. Appropriately, one of her best-loved series (pictured above) is called On Being An Angel.
I discovered Woodman’s work by accident on the Internet while looking for a Turbeville image. This was last June. In July, I was in London and went to the Barbican for its Surreal House exhibit, where saw a half-dozen of her silver gelatin prints along the wall. In September, while back in London for a week, I stopped by the Tate Modern and saw the type FRANCESCA WOODMAN on the cover of a book in the old bookstore across the street. The actual title was Some Disordered Interior Geometries, and it is the first and only book Woodman published, herself, of her work; almost immediately after it came out, she disappeared completely. The original was only 24 pages long and only ten copies remain.
Now it’s a new year and I’m headed, serendipitously, to New York the day after The Woodmans, a documentary about Woodman and her parents, a “self-murder mystery” as New York Magazine called it, opens at the Film Forum. It may be imagined, but I feel haunted by her presence. I expect Woodman comes to haunt all who love her. Even C. Scott Willis, the filmmaker of The Woodmans, wasn’t looking for her. One Sunday he went to brunch at his cousin’s house and her parents, the artists Betty and George Woodman, were there. He’d never heard of her work but once he knew her story, he couldn’t help but tell it.
The ending is unhappy, but how could she have lived? Her talent and her capacity for seeing was so extraordinarily bright that she herself felt only a shadow of it.
Above images from Francesca Woodman: On Being An Angel