Exhibitions, Portrait

On Being an Angel: finding Francesca Woodman in the otherness of her self-portraits 

Ignored in life, celebrated in death, the 22-year-old Francesca Woodman is a tragic hero of photography; an extraordinary progressive feminine voice, yet a victim of depression, isolation and the mores of her time. Her ghostly, monochrome self-portrait photographs are now revered, but is there more to her art than we realise?

The American photographer Francesca Woodman is regarded as a defining voice of her generation. Although she was a teenager when the main body of her work was completed, Woodman is now talked of as the Sylvia Plath of photography, both in terms of her cultural attitude and the workings of her art. Yet, unlike the poet Plath, Woodman remained almost completely unrecognised throughout her short, tragic life.

Indeed, her rejection from the established industry of the time may have contributed to her horribly sad death. In the autumn of 1980, at the age of 22, Woodman was forced to move in to her parent’s home in Manhattan after surviving a suicide attempt.

The adopted New Yorker, who had started her life in the frontier town of Boulder, Colorado, had begun to suffer from depression, in part due to the failure of her work to attract attention. She had sent her portfolio of self-portraits to magazines across New York, and been uniformly ignored. Then, an application for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts was rejected.

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1979 © Betty and George Woodman NB: No toning, cropping, enlarging, or overprinting with text allowed.

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1979
© Betty and George Woodman

On January 19, 1981, soon after her relationship to her partner disintegrated, Woodman jumped to her death from the loft window of a building on the Lower East Side of New York.

An acquaintance wrote of her death: “Things had been bad, there had been therapy, things had gotten better, guard had been let down.”

The recognition Woodman craved in life came in a rush, for she left behind an extraordinary body of work. Through largely black and white photographs, taken between 1972 and 1981, Woodman exhibited an intuitive, progressive aptitude for capturing herself and her models in rare, in-between moments – seeming at once impromptu, and yet also carefully constructed.

By using long-exposure techniques, slow shutter speeds and surrealist compositions, Woodman explored her subjects and set-ups with an intensity of focus and a regard for nuance rarely seen in the self-portraiture of the time – or indeed today.

Francesca Woodman, Self-portrait talking to Vince, Providence, Rhode Island, 1977 © George and Betty Woodman NB: No toning, cropping, enlarging, or overprinting with text allowed.

Francesca Woodman, Self-portrait talking to Vince, Providence, Rhode Island, 1977
© George and Betty Woodman

Through such considered moments of vulnerability, Woodman found a way to transcend the basic aestheticism of her own form, questioning broader concepts of the self, gender, body image and identity.

These themes have long been discussed by artists and art critics alike, but are perhaps even more pertinent in today’s image-conscious society, where we upload millions of self-portraits to social media every day.

Yet Woodman was hugely prolific, creating 10,000 negatives, over 800 prints, of which only 120 have ever been published or exhibited.

Francesca Woodman, From Space, 1976 © Betty and George Woodman NB: No toning, cropping, enlarging, or overprinting with text allowed.

Francesca Woodman, From Space, 1976
© Betty and George Woodman

This is the backdrop to the stunning retrospective Francesca Woodman. On Being an Angel, organised by Ana Tellgren, curator of photography at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and currently on show at Foam Fotografiemuseum, Amsterdam, until 9 March 2016.

“Francesca Woodman has been on our wish list for a long time,” says Foam curator Kim Knoppers. “She was a very gifted and talented young woman, expanding the boundaries of photography.

“From an early age, Woodman developed a signature: her body of work is very coherent, focusing on more or less one subject – herself in relation to space.

“It’s very relevant in our times to show her work. Now, we have the selfie, and people are quite obsessed with themselves – as was she. Of course, she used her body as a ‘canvas’. It’s about her, but also not about her.”

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980 © George and Betty Woodman NB: No toning, cropping, enlarging, or overprinting with text allowed.

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980
© George and Betty Woodman

Consider the photograph from Woodman’s Angel series – the image from which the exhibition takes its name.

Here, Woodman positions the camera above her body and pushes her chest out to emphasise the outline of her breasts. It is a photograph made to provoke, but yet it is in no way provocative.

Woodman uses her naked body. But, unlike the suggestive images familiar to us in the 21st century, her work is not primarily sexual. The viewer is instead drawn to the emptiness around her, pushed to consider not just shape of the girl, but also her performance, her position in the portrait, her process of capturing her image, the act of photography itself.

“The theme of the angel,” says Knoppers, “is as a figure that is there and also not there, because it is not human. She is, somehow, always in-between – and this in-between is very important. Woodman’s photographs are about appearance and disappearance.

“In the graveyard image, Untitled, Boulder, Colorado, 1972-75, for example, she’s disappearing in this blur of movement. She uses this technique a lot.”

Francesca Woodman, On Being an Angel # 1, 1977 © Betty and George Woodman NB: No toning, cropping, enlarging, or overprinting with text allowed.

Francesca Woodman, On Being an Angel # 1, 1977
© Betty and George Woodman

As you move through the exhibition, this is the real impact of Woodman’s work. The majority of her prints are no larger than 8×10 inches (20x25cm), forcing a literal closeness between viewer and subject, an intimacy with the dark recesses of the soft-focus images.

But Woodman never reveals everything: faces are blurred or masked, parts of the body hidden behind furniture, wallpaper and plants. The result is a powerful interchange between observation, self-display and mystery.

Francesca Woodman, About Being My Model, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976 © George and Betty Woodman NB: No toning, cropping, enlarging, or overprinting with text allowed.

Francesca Woodman, About Being My Model, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
© George and Betty Woodman

For Woodman, her image is both subject and object; both present and not present. The self and the self-portrait are under scrutiny. This is clear from her starting point – Self-portrait at 13, Boulder, Colorado, 1972, where she is captured with her hair obscuring her face – to her later works, which experiment with colour, process and the then relatively new format, video.

“Not many people know the videos exist,” explains Knoppers, “The themes are similar to her photographs, but the video is more of a sketch. There is an even more experimental quality, but also a lesser maturity.”

Francesca Woodman, Self-Deceit # 1, 1978 © Betty and George Woodman NB: No toning, cropping, enlarging, or overprinting with text allowed.

Francesca Woodman, Self-Deceit # 1, 1978
© Betty and George Woodman

This playfulness is surprising from a photographer so often associated with darkness, particularly when evaluated in light of her suicide in 1981, aged twenty-two-years-old. Seeing these films alongside her usual medium, one finds a new understanding of a photographer exploring her art with an enjoyment and passion.

In one video, the viewer watches Woodman set up and shoot her well-known photograph Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976, in which she sits beside her body’s black silhouette marked onto a white-dusted floor. It’s a slow, thought-through process, but one that animates her – at the end, you hear Woodman’s voice declare: “Oh, I’m really pleased!”

Throughout her life as a photographer, Woodman showed a maturity of focus and vision perhaps best summarised by a line in her journal: “I was inventing a language for people to see the everyday things that I also see… and show them something different… Simply the other side.”

It is in her enthusiastic exploration of this other side where her enduring influence is most felt.

Find out more about the exhibition here.

All images © Betty and George Woodman, courtesy of Foam

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