For a brief period, just as the 70s were turning into the 80s, there was a promising and shining female photographer making her way through the New York art scene. She was called Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) and since her early death she has been a fascinating cult figure for art lovers all over the world.
Her body of work has been subject of some exhibitions during the last couple of decades, like the extensive show held at the Fondation Cartier in 1998, but hopefully the beautiful monography recently published by Phaidon will succed in task of bringing her closer to her expanding audience.
The power of the images created by Francesca, full of magic and mistery, is best experienced rather than put into words, but one can safely could say that few photographs have ability to penetrate move one’s innermost self in such a beautiful and uncanny manner. Francesca was young and full of ideas, influenced both by the Gothic and the Surrealist aesthetics and by current conceptual art practices that explored the role of the body in space, as seen in Bruce Nauman, for example. Her work is haunting, as if inhabited by ghosts. One is tempted to think that Francesca’s subject was the romantic idealization of the girl becoming woman, but when reading her own words one discovers that she was much more intrigued by the representation of the persons and objects in the space and the nature – the possibilities and limitations– of photography itself.
Despite her youth and precocity (she has been defined as the first child prodigy of photography), her style didn’t come out of the blue. She was absorbing and learning from contemporary photographers such as Duane Michaels –with whow she shared the love for bluring bodies in movement, surrealist twists and the use of ambiguous sentences to complete the pieces–, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Ralph Gibbons and Deborah Turbeville, whose ambivalent career, both commercially succesful in the fashion field and in the art scene, was a strong reference point for Francesca.
“Am I in the picture? Am I getting into it or out of it? I could be ghost, an animal or a dead body, and not just a girl standing on the corner…” Those appear to be kind of questions Francesca was asking herself as she created her work and found her own identity. Born to a family of artists (George Woodman is a painter, her mother Betty is a ceramist and sculptor and his brother is a video-artist), she was raised in the perfect enviroment to start experimenting soon. And she did. She was given a camera at the age of 13 and started taking pictures right away. Her Self-Portrait at thirteen, probably her first intentional artistic photo, is already interesting and misterious and heralds much of what she would deliver over the next ten years.
Indeed, most of Francesca’s pictures depict, well, Francesca. And very often she is naked in them. She has been criticised by some as some egocentrical teenager wanting to show off, which is surely not the case. The genre of self-portrait is historically essential and fascinating, and only a few years later the hundreds of self-representations by Cindy Sherman would grant her a place in art history and fame that endures to this day. As Francesca herself used to say: “It is a matter of convenience, Im always available”, which is a fairly good reason for a starting photographer than wouldn’t always find models when she needed them. Besides, that uninhibited use of her own body, not always well received at the time, was groundbreaking and opened a road also travelled by others like the aforementioned Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke or Marina Abramovic amongst many others.
Francesca was born in Denver, Colorado, were she grew up. She later moved to New York to study Photography at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), but one of her strongest influences was Italy. Her family was infatuated by that country (hence her very Italian first name) and took her there to summer trips every year, and thus becoming fluent in that language. Later, she won a scholarship and spent a year in Rome to continue her artistic education. While she was living there she took some of her most famous photographs and also befriended a group of local artists, who used to gather at the Libreria Maldoror and who encouraged, stimulated and gave her the chance to have one of her first exhibitions (which took place in March 1978). There, at that old bookstore, she found the old maths book that subsequently became Some Disordered Interior Geometries, her first (and last) artist book she made and published. Her method was based on pasting her pictures scattered through the pages of the book, building an interesting relationship of contrasts between the geometrical theories and diagrams contained in the book and her erotic, self-questioning body of work.
After her return of Rome, Francesca settled back in New York and only a week after the publication of her book, killed herself by jumping out of the window of a tall building in the Lower East Side. She was 22 years-old. Her death seems difficult to understand, given her youth, her talent, her good prospects for the future and the support of both her family and friends. But who could really know what was going on in her mind?
Her work was coherent and almost too mature for a girl of her age. She seems to have entered the art world fully-formed, with a body of work that had no loose ends. In the brief stracts of her diaries published at the Phaidon book she seems a bright, creative young girl infatuated by Gertrude Stein and by culture at large, but never she seems depressed or going through a self-destructive delirium. However, in a letter to a friend, sent in 1980, she wrote: “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…”.
Thus, we could interpret some of her pictures as desire to die young, meant as a positive thing (as in the Gothic tradition), or maybe as a wish to just dissapear from this world. She was obsessed by angels (one of her most famous series being called On being an angel), and maybe she dreamt of becoming one. Or a ghost. But we will never know what made her give up on life and her fascinating art. Her haunting body of work –which shows her dissolving, jumping, exploring life and death– and her early suicide are the perfect ingredients to build a cultural myth. The legend is already sorrounding her ghost, as it does with Sylvia Plath or Diane Arbus, other female geniuses that chose to die in the zenith of their creativity.
Legend or not, there are much of us who grief everyday for the amazing and moving images to come that she deprived us from.
Bibliography: Francesca Woodman by Chris Townsend. Phaidon (2006).