In Part 3 of the course notes, the work of Francesca Woodman is referenced. This short post looks at her work and some of the writings about her.
Wikipedia provides a brief bio for Woodman as follows: Francesca Stern Woodman (April 3, 1958 – January 19, 1981) was an American photographer best known for her black and white pictures featuring either herself or female models. Many of her photographs show young women who are nude, blurred (due to movement and long exposure times), merging with their surroundings, or whose faces are obscured. Her work continues to be the subject of much critical acclaim and attention, years after she killed herself at the age of 22, in 1981.
According to the article in The Guardian (Cooke, 2014), during her short life Woodman produced about 800 works. Steinhauer (2012) provides a succinct introduction to her photography:
Woodman’s most frequent subject was herself, most often nude. She photographed her own body ceaselessly, in black and white, often in ruinous spaces: rooms with peeling wallpaper, crumbling paint, light streaming through uncovered windows. She staged scenes with props: mirrors and gloves and eels and panes of glass. She blurred her image so that she appeared like an active ghost—or perhaps more appropriately, after the title of one of her series, like an angel.
In part 3, Woodman’s work is used an an example of the creative use of slow shutter speeds. Motion blur occurs in many of her photos, but certainly not all and not even in the majority. She used it to show movement of herself or others and in some cases to allow the subject to merge into the background as if there was no separation.
As Steinhauer notes, many photos were taken in decaying, decrepit places with peeling paint and wallpaper and broken things used for props. The Tate Gallery article mentions how this environment “create[s] extreme and often disturbing psychological states” and some authors have made the connection to what they think might have been Woodman’s mental state. An interview with one of her classmates in The Woodmans (2010) contradicts this view. The interviewee states that these photos were not about disappearing, but about experimenting with how it would feel to be part of the furniture, wallpaper etc.
Badger (s.d) compares her imagery to “a series of stills from an extended theatrical performance – dancelike in mode”. Certainly, the idea of theatre is an important one because her photos are not at all photojournalistic – they are not “just as things are”, but are obviously carefully planned and posed and it’s tempting to imagine what story she might be trying to tell us. The Tate article also picks up on this theatric idea by mentioning that Woodman was influenced by Max Klinger, the symbolist artist. A quick scan of Klinger’s work shows a connection via a concept of drama, of carefully arranged works that tell a story.
From the perspective of Barrett (1997). the important aspect is the internal context: it is the story told within the frame which gives the key context. The story is so arresting that the other contexts simply do not matter.
The film The Woodmans gives us a strong idea of the importance of art in the family and the high expectations of family members. In addition to interviews with family members and some people who knew Woodman, there are tantalising glimpses of her journal writings. It’s easy to read too much into these writings, but the conclusion is that of a very needy and troubled person who was deeply unhappy for a long period of time. As Steinhauer points out, it is impossible to separate the story from the photos. Maybe there is a kind of “morbid thrill” about her early death, but in the end she will be remembered by her work and that is a great memory indeed.
Badger, Gerry (s.d) Francesca Woodman. At: http://www.gerrybadger.com/ francesca-woodman/ (Accessed on 13 August 2016)
Barrett, Terry (1997) Photographs and Contexts. At: www.terrybarrettosu.com/pdfs/B_PhotAndCont_97.pdf (Accessed on 9th August 2016)
Cooke, Rachel (2014) ‘Searching for the Real Francesca Woodman’. In: The Guardian [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/aug/31/searching-for-the-real-francesca-woodman (Accessed on 13 August 2016)
Steinhauer, Jillian (2012). Finding Francesca Woodman. At:http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/05/23/finding-francesca-woodman/ (Accessed on 13 August 2016)
Tate (s.d) Francesca Woodman 1958-1981 At: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/francesca-woodman-10512 (Accessed on 13 August 2016)
Wikipedia (s.d) Francesca Woodman. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesca_Woodman (Accessed on 13 August 2016)
The Woodmans. (2010) Directed by Willis, S. [DVD] USA: C. Scott Films