FRANCESCA WOODMAN, “Self-Portrait, Providence, Rhode Island,” 1975-1978


Francesca Woodman (American 1958-1981)

Gelatin silver print, 8 x 10 inches

Later printing by Igor Bakht, Woodman family’s printer

Another example at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 1998; reproduced full page

Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 1998; reproduced full page

Collection of Igor Bakht
Robert Johnson, Curator Emeritus, Achenbach/San Francisco Fine Arts Museum

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Francesca Woodman (American 1958-1981) committed suicide at the age of just 22. As a result, it is her self-portraits – funny, artful, neurotic, and occasionally painfully honest – that have always attracted the most attention. People want to see this extraordinary lost girl; they remain convinced that her primary subject was herself.

“You can reinterpret her pictures, if that’s your point of view,” says her mother, Betty Woodman. “But I don’t think that was there. Everybody was tied in knots about politics in the 70s, but she wasn’t interested.” Their memory of Francesca is that she wasn’t a “deeply serious intellectual”; she was witty, amusing. “She had a good time,” says Betty. “Her life wasn’t a series of miseries. She was fun to be with. It’s a basic fallacy that her death is what she was all about, and people read that into the photographs. They psychoanalyse them. Young people in particular feel she’s talking about them, somehow. They see the photographs as very personal. But that’s not the way I approach them. They’re often funny.”

Francesca Woodman was born in 1958, and grew up in Boulder, where her parents belonged to the fine art faculty at the University of Colorado, though she also spent a great deal of time in Italy, where the family has a house in Antella, near Florence (later, she would spend a formative year in Rome as a college student). At boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts, she took photography classes, and it was during this period that she began to explore some of the ideas that would appear in her later work (such as the strikingly grown-up series of photographs in a cemetery in Boulder, in which she appears naked among the headstones). By the time she enrolled as an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design, she was already fully committed to a career as a photographer; those who knew her say she arrived on campus in a league of her own.

“She was kooky, and at first I didn’t want to be anywhere near her,” says her friend, writer and journalist Betsy Berne. “We were in the same dorm, and I couldn’t get away from her. She seemed to have been born in the wrong century – she was totally outside pop culture; she never watched TV; she couldn’t have cared less about music. But if she wanted something, she was going to get it, and when we moved to New York [in 1979], I sublet the place she lived in and that’s when we became close. She was very loyal and intense. She was the kind of person you either loved or hated.”  Woodman’s suicide – she jumped off a building in lower Manhattan – has been linked to a funding application that had been turned down. Berne disputes this. “She had an illness: depression. That’s all there is to it.”

“Her appeal has grown rather than waned,” says Corey Keller, a curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Art students are drawn to the conviction she brought to her work and, in contrast to the cool slickness of the digital, it embraces tactility and decay in a very sensual and seductive way.” Keller sees Woodman’s youth not as a liability, but as the source of her potency, though she admits the issue of her self-portraits continues to be fraught. The first solo shows of her work opened in 1986, and drew a great deal of attention. More crucially, she was championed by American critic Rosalind Krauss, who saw her photographs – perhaps somewhat predictably – as an attempt to resist the male gaze (Krauss has written that Woodman exhibits a tendency to “camouflage” herself, attempting to “hide” even as she stands in front of the camera). Although some continued to see the work as adolescent and excessively narcissistic, others began to regard Woodman as the last of the great Modernist photographers, a line that may be traced back to Man Ray and the other surrealists. Later, Cindy Sherman, a contemporary of Woodman’s, became a fan – and perhaps Woodman’s influence can also be seen in the work of Nan Goldin and David Armstrong.ainly an expression of selfhood. She’s not interested in images of women in general, for example, and even when the subject of the photograph is not herself physically, one always has the sense it is about her psychically.”

In her lifetime, Francesca Woodman wasn’t famous. When she died, she’d only just ceased to be a student. But in the years since, her fame and influence have grown exponentially. Today, her work is valuable and sought after. In the end, you can only return to the images themselves, the best of which are not only beautiful, but endlessly beguiling.