Francesca Woodman: April 3, 1958 – January 19, 1981

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

2 Comments

  1. Fee Willow
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Sarah Nicole and Dossier, for this intriguing story of Miss Francesca Woodman’s enigmatic life. Unfortunately, I did not even know of her and her remarkable art. I must credit my regualr email from “Dazed and Confused” Digital for, also, opening me to you. And best wishes for this new year. May it bring peace and prosperity to you. Merci. I made your web site a ‘favorite’ and shall “leaf its pages slowly like a sparrow in search of food.”

  2. Damian James Gray
    Posted November 26, 2011 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    I stumbled along this story after typing the date 19/1/1981. I was born on the 19th January 1981 and i was looking for events that happend on this date. After reading this i was saddend by the way her life ended but inspired by her work. I love photography, art, music. I have been in some dark places myself. My parents divorced when i was 2 years old and i could never accept my mums new husband as a father, which led to me leaving home at 15 years old. After 12 months of living at drug houses i moved in with my girlfriends parents house at the age of 16. I finished high school with no qualification and after 8 months of living at my girlfriends house we split up and was back on the street with years of drug addiction, in and out of work and homelesnes. I dont know why but i’ve always kept myself going. At 25 years i started to feel more stable and 6 years on i’ve now quit smoking, stoped drinking, eating healthy and i dont take drugs. Because of my earlyer unstable life i distanced myself from my family to the point where i have no relationship at all but for some reason i’m happier this way but i love my family. I feel for anyone who has and unstability in there life. I hated myselth at times, which is the worced thing for anyone. Never throwe your life away, always remember there is always someone worse off than you, thats what kept me going. After all the trouble i’ve been through i’ve always remained positive. Everyone has a talent, just like Francesca Woodsman had, its sad she ended her life so young, from reading this it seems she had alot more to do with her life. I think art, photography and music is the best way to express your inner self but keep an opend mind, learn to listen to other people and take advise. Dont trap yourself in yourself, never give up and live your life to the full. R.I.P Francesca Woodsman xxxx

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