“A lot of photography is making records of people, as objects, friends. It’s like organising a wardrobe….” – Francesca Woodman
Francesca Stern Woodman was an American photographer born in Denver, Colorado in 1958 best known for her black and white self portraits or female models.
Many of her photographs show women, naked or clothed, blurred due to movement and long exposure times, merging with their surroundings, or whose faces are obscured. Woodman took her first self-portrait at age thirteen and continued photographing herself until she died.
She attended public school in Boulder, Colorado, between 1963 and 1971, except for second grade, which she attended in Italy, where the family spent many summers between school years. She began high school in 1972 at Abbot Academy, a private Massachusetts boarding school. There, she began to develop her photographic skills and became interested in the art form. Abbot Academy merged with Phillips Academy in 1973; Woodman graduated from the public Boulder High School in 1975. Through 1975, she spent summers with her family in Italy in the Florentine countryside, where the family lived on an old farm.
Beginning in 1975, Woodman attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, Rhode Island. She studied in Rome between 1977 and 1978 in an RISD honours program. Because she spoke fluent Italian, she was able to befriend Italian intellectuals and artists. She returned to Rhode Island in late 1978 to graduate from RISD.
Woodman moved to New York City in 1979. After spending the summer of 1979 in Stanwood, Washington visiting her boyfriend at Pilchuck Glass School, she returned to New York “to make a career in photography.” She sent portfolios of her work to fashion photographers, but “her solicitations did not lead anywhere”. In the summer of 1980, she was an artist-in-residence at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
In late 1980, Woodman became depressed due to the failure of her work to attract attention and due to a broken relationship. She survived a suicide attempt in the autumn of 1980, after which she lived with her parents in Manhattan.
On January 19, 1981, Woodman took her life, aged twenty-two, jumping out of a loft window of a building on the East Side of New York City. An acquaintance wrote, “things had been bad, there had been therapy, things had gotten better, guard had been let down”. Her father has suggested that Woodman’s suicide was related to an unsuccessful application for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Although Woodman used different cameras and film formats during her career, most of her photographs were taken with medium format cameras producing 6×6 cm square negatives. She created at least 10,000 negatives, which her parents now keep. Woodman’s estate, which is managed by Woodman’s parents, consists of over 800 prints, of which only around 120 images had been published or exhibited as of 2006. Most of Woodman’s prints are 8 by 10 inches (20 by 25 cm) or smaller, which “works to produce an intimate experience between viewer and photograph”.
Many of Woodman’s images are untitled and are known only by a location and date. She often took photographs indoors, finding abandoned and derelict spaces in which to create her photographic tableaux.
At RISD, Woodman borrowed a video camera and VTR and created videotapes related to her photographs in which she “methodically whitewashes her own naked body, for instance, or compares her torso to images of classical statuary.” Some of these videos were displayed at the Helsinki City Art Museum in Finland and the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation in Miami in 2005; the Tate Modern in London in 2007–2008; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2011 (in an exhibition which will travel to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2012). In the 2011–2012 exhibitions, the selected video works, each 23 seconds to 3 minutes 15 seconds in length, were entitled “‘Francesca’ x 2,” “Sculpture,” “Corner,” “Trace,” and “Mask.”
Woodman created a number of artist’s books, such as Portrait of a Reputation, Quaderno dei Dettati e dei Temi (Notebook of Dictations and Compositions), Quaderno (also known as Quaderno Raffaello), Portraits Friends Equasions, and Angels, Calendar Notebook. However, the only artist’s book containing Woodman’s photographs that was published during her lifetime was Some Disordered Interior Geometries.Released in January 1981 shortly before Woodman’s death, it is 24 pages in length and is based upon selected pages from an Italian geometry exercise book. On the pages, Woodman had attached 16 photographs and had added handwriting and white correction fluid. A study of the book notes that Woodman occasionally re-drew a form “for emphasis or delight.” A reproduction of the book’s original spreads shows purple-pink covers, pages which vary slightly in colour, and traces of pink on several pages. Although the published version of the book has purple-pink covers, the interior pages are printed using only black, white, and shades of gray.
In 1999, a critic was of the opinion that Some Disordered Interior Geometries was “a distinctively bizarre book… a seemingly deranged miasma of mathematical formulae, photographs of herself and scrawled, snaking, handwritten notes.” An acquaintance of Woodman wrote in 2000 that it “was a very peculiar little book indeed,” with “a strangely ironic distance between the soft intimacy of the bodies in the photographs and the angularity of the geometric rules that covered the pages.” A 2006 essay described the book as “a three-way game that plays the text and illustrations for an introduction to Euclid against Woodman’s own text and diagrams, as well as the ‘geometry’ of her formal compositions,” while a 2008 article found the book “poetic and humorous, analytical and reflexive.” A 2010 article on Woodman called the book “original and enigmatic,” and a 2010 review stated of the book that “we are the richer for it.” Claire Raymond argues that in Some Disordered Interior Geometries Woodman elliptically confronts the problem of the female artist’s struggle to claim authority as an artist: by using a student textbook as her signal artist’s book (the only book published during Woodman’s lifetime) Woodman exposes the difficulty of the female artist moving beyond the role of neophyte/student.