Francesca Woodman: The Other Self
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Written by Adt.
Francesca Woodman was born to George and Betty Woodman in Colorado, USA in 1958. Her parents were both artists involved with ceramics, painting and photography, she grew up with these around her. Art was a part of life for Francesca, museums were a regular place to visit and drawing and image making was expected, if not encouraged. It is said that she took her first self-portrait at age 13 and continued to take photographs until she died. The image below is regarded as her first self portrait.
When she was older, she went to school at the Rhode Island School of Design, which is even now, regarded as one of the best institutes for art and design worldwide. Here, she made thousands of photographs. She also spent time abroad during her schooling in Italy. She was able to connect with the writers and artists there because she was fluent in Italian. This period in her life is supposed to have had a huge influence on her photographic practice. Francesca rose to popularity within the art world when Rosalind Kraus, an art theorist, wrote about her work in her book Bachelors in 1999. Since then, she has remained a mysterious figure with many trying to figure out her story.
Most of her photographs were taken with a medium format camera that used 6cm square negatives. Francesca created at least 10,000 negatives. She didn’t make a lot of prints, only about 800, and the ones she did make are only 8 x 10 inches. The smaller photographs create an intimate experience between the viewer and the photograph when viewed on a wall in person.
Rosalind Kruass points out that a lot of Francesca’s work was made in the situation of art school. She was given assignments and some of her work was most probably ‘answers’ to these assignments. This is probably why many of her photographs have handwriting on them, titles or little notes.
Francesca mostly took her photographs indoors, in seemingly constructed settings. She is known for her long exposure techniques that leave the body a surreal blur in the middle of a static interior landscape.
Her photographs were generally low in contrast and softly focused, making the images sort of ethereal. She used long exposures and blurs to create movement, adding to the dreamy vibe. The pictures are fuzzy, as if there is something hidden in them. She photographed herself, mostly indoors, with a tripod. Sometimes, she worked with models, but from the photographs it is clear that they are meant to be representative of her.
She worked with one male model, presumably associated with her school, Charlie, and his photographs are particularly interesting since she appears in some of them. By putting the artist and the model in the same frame, she establishes a visual relationship between them.
The dreamy aesthetic in her work has led her to be compared to Man Ray, who’s own works were based in surrealism and shocking. Francesca’s work is definitely similar to his, but in my opinion, softer, more real and much more magical.
The Body in Space
Francesca photographed the female body, juxtaposing it with objects and physical spaces. She photographed herself or models that represented her, depicting the female body through a female gaze, moreover, her own. This is in sharp contrast to the images of females in Man Ray’s work, who she has been compared to, which presents the female through the then traditional male gaze.
She photographed herself indoors, often in the corners of decaying spaces with dilapidated walls and dusty floors. She placed the body within frames or placed smoothly within the sharp angles of the surrounding architecture.
On this particular photograph, called talking to Vince, she scratched a motif onto the print itself and thus, established a relationship between the photograph and its physical surface.
Francesca played with mirrors, reflections and shadows, seemingly looking into her ‘other’ self, the part of her that lived in her internal world.
Francesca suffered from depression and her work is often looked at through the lens of her mental illness. The question that arises here is whether Francesca’s work is totally self-portraiture or whether she adds an element of fiction into the representation of herself. Is she creating a character in her own image? Is she trying to visualize her ‘other self’?
The idea of self-fiction in Francesca’s work comes through the careful staging of the settings and the meticulous placement of props in the frame. She used a tripod with a self-timer, which also indicates self-aware poses.
While at school, she also borrowed a film camera and made video works on 16mm film that explored subjects similar to those she explored through her photographs.
After she graduated, Francesca moved to New York to be a fashion photographer. She submitted her portfolio to different people but was unable to find work. In 1980, she was an artist in residence at the Macdowell Colony in New Hampshire.
Following a relationship split, Francesca became depressed. She moved in with her parents in Manhattan after a failed suicide attempt. The following year, she jumped out of a loft window and died at age 22.
She did not have many shows when she was alive except in small alternate galleries in New York and Italy, she became known only posthumously. Most of Francesca’s story is unknown as is most of her work. It may be a strategy to shroud her in mystery and increase interest in her work, cashing in slowly as time goes on. It may be an effort by her family to maintain her privacy. For now, she remains largely undiscovered and obscure.
(All images belong to the Woodman Family Foundation.)
Krauss, R. E. (2001). Problem Sets. In Bachelors. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Woodman, F., Tellgren, A., Birnbaum, D., Noring, A., Palm, A., Woodman, G., & Vogel, S. (2015). Francesca Woodman: On Being An Angel. Stockholm: Moderna Museet.
Woodman, C. (2016). The Story of Francesca by Charlie. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from https://www.foam.org/museum/programme/the-story-of-francesca-by-charlie
Cooke, R. (2014, August 30). Searching for the real Francesca Woodman. Retrieved May 25, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/aug/31/searching-for-the-real-francesca-woodman
Gumport, E. (2011, January). The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman. Retrieved May 25, 2020, from https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2011/01/24/long-exposure-francesca-woodman/
Rinaldi, R. (2019, December 19). Removing Suicide as the Filter for Experiencing Francesca Woodman’s Photography. Retrieved May 25, 2020, from https://hyperallergic.com/533550/removing-suicide-as-the-filter-for-experiencing-francesca-woodmans-photography/
Francesca Woodman. (2020, April 02). Retrieved May 25, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesca_Woodman