The Ghost of Francesca Woodman

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).

About Lorena Muñoz-Alonso



  1. babbu

    probably at 22 y-old she understood to have reached
    what she was looking for..
    lucky her.
    I guess i could do the same
    when I realize it.
    I’ll be waiting for the next article!

  2. hollow boy

    Hi, Miss Haze. Finally… you did it!

  3. pickman

    The text is just as intriguing as the pictures. Goddam kid, all in ten years…

    Happy to see the site is on at last.

  4. Hank Londoner

    Sorry, She did not jump from her apartment window, She lived on the 2nd floor in the lower east side, she attempted to kill heself first at upstate NY. This was on Saterday. She returned to the city and jumped from the Barbizon bulding on the following Tuesday. I spoke to her several times on that Saterday.
    Hank Londoner
    ( She was my assistant photographer)

  5. Although I can’t see eye to eye with all you are saying, I must admit I do like your way of writing.

  6. Laura.southampton

    i turned 19 on newyears, im on an art foundation course. art is my passion and its all ive ever known.. but im strugglin to find hope in a career in art because quite frankly im gettin depressed too. without bein too cleche, people always tell me ive achieved and delt with alot, im always comming out with ideas, i love being creative.. i experiement with all diciplines including photography… but do i really want art to take over my life?? ive always used art as an outlet. but picking the right uni when there’s all these strikes and goverment issues really doesnt help me have faith when its a risky career anyway, and the compettion for london??
    It doesn’t help that ive lost ambition, not passion, just direction and i hate not knowing what im doing?

    any tips?

    • Hello Laura,

      Your post is over a year old! but I wanted to respond.
      If you are producing original work and exploring new ideas then be prepared for a lot of rejection and aggravation. By definition the audience and market-place does not exist for what you are creating. Also, there are a lot of people who are doing fine out of keeping things the way they are, for their own benefit. Vested interests in other words.

      The establishment is wary of originality because it is not what it knows and controls… It’s not “established”. It either doesn’t understand what you are about, or doesn’t want something new to threaten careers, status and reliable cash cows. This is normal. I’ve often thought that the “creative” industries are ruined by the people that work in them.

      I’m just trying to give you an idea of what you are up against.

      If you are good across a range of disciplines, that helps. The most successful people I have seen have either “zig-zagged” up the ladder rather than climbed straight up… or have been a Mozart at something that not everyone wants to do (or can) but is nonetheless needed. …or who have towed the line for years, established contacts and an impressive CV, and then gone their own way.
      Some in the industry consider flexibility bonus, some favour specialisation. Either direction is your choice. Frankly I don’t consider that the industry gives me enough of anything to dictate *what* I do. That’s *my* choice!

      Prepare to be: ignored, bought out and sat on, criticised, ostracised, discriminated against, ripped off and plagiarised. Not good huh?
      Now, if creativity is just part of who you are then you may *have* to follow it or be forever restless and wondering ‘what if?’ … which is arguably a lot worse than trying and having it “not work out”. Something else may “work out” instead.

      My opinion is that it all hinges on how you regard these supposed ‘superiors’ that you think you *need* to validate your work, career, art or even *life*. When I started out, I put these people on pedestals and would chase the crumbs of work that they tantalised me with. I had to go through the ‘mill’ a little and learn the hard way that I was *wrong*. My creativity -whatever it’s ‘value’- can exist outside of the opinions of others that I discovered were just as flawed, biased, self-centered, narcissistic, spiteful, devious, back-stabbing, fake and destructively neurotic… as the worst in any aspect of our society.

      So don’t be surprised, or depressed if you have bad experiences with them. Don’t even consider the same ‘way out’ that Francessca did. Trust me after getting the inside view… the industry and the people in it are really, *really* not worth it. Your health, life and creativity are way too important.
      Looking back with experience I find it frightening that I ever believed different. It’s almost laughable!

      So: (for instance) if you want to be a film-maker: start making films … don’t wait around for someone behind a desk to ‘validate’ you with a badge and a pat on the head! You can do your own thing and anything else is a bonus. Even if you want to approach the industry, the fact that you have your own thing going on makes you look more serious, professional and indeed desirable. Of course you may get asked: If you have your own thing, why do you want to work for us? Be prepared.

      The pill to swalllow is that : you *may* never be a “big shot” by industry standards. I am not one and I may never be one. So what? What’s more important the art or the prestige? You may have to support yourself by other means at least in part? So what? It’s a good character builder, gets you thinking about other things, gets you real money *now* and (depending on the job) could give you useful contacts.

      Does any of this help? I’m just trying to convey the things that I wished I had known when in your position. These are my opinions and conclusions based upon the reality that I have seen and experienced, not just fortune-cookie philosophy. Get the (qualified) views of others too and then choose.
      You can re-evaluate, modify, learn and grow as you progress. In fact you probably will.
      That’s life.

  7. Pingback: The Ghost of Francesca Woodman « Genea Bailey's Blog

  8. Hello there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group?
    There’s a lot of people that I think would really appreciate your content. Please let me know. Thanks

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