Francesca Woodman

Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

1976

Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Image: 143 x 144 mm
Acquisition
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Reference
AR00352

Summary

This black and white square-format photograph features the artist sitting in a chair in the corner of an abandoned interior space. The room has bare floorboards and a heavy skirting board. On the right of the composition, behind the artist, is a window through which light enters the scene, while on the left is what looks like a filled-in window surround. Woodman is seated on a white wooden chair and is nude except for a necklace and a pair of dark single-strap ‘Mary Jane’ style shoes. She wears her hair up, with a single lock falling on the right side of her face. Looking straight at the camera, she sits upright with her legs almost together and her feet tucked in close to the chair, while her hands are positioned in her lap just between her legs. Her bare breasts and torso are lighter in colour than the rest of her skin. On the a particularly white area of the floor to her right, forming a diagonal from where she sits, is a dark silhouette or impression of what looks like a female body, with its head at the artist’s feet. The outline is only partial, missing its forearms, hands and left leg.

The photograph, as the title suggests, was taken in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1976, and is one of a series of similar images. Woodman created the dark impression on the floor by lying on her back in photosensitive powder scattered over the floorboards. The areas of powder exposed to light turned white, while those in shadow turned black. This is known as a ‘shadowgraph’. One of Woodman’s videos shows her undertaking the process for this series. The photograph itself was taken with a long exposure, which produces glowing whites: the light coming in from the window behind Woodman has completely obliterated any detail of the outside world, and the powder on the floor appears to shimmer.

Woodman's photographs frequently depict female forms in empty, tightly cropped interior spaces. This corresponds with the small size of the photographs themselves, which rarely exceed twenty centimetres square, allowing for what the critic Jane Simon has described as ‘an intimate experience between the viewer and the photograph’ (Simon 2010, p.28). Establishing a close relationship between the viewer and the artwork allowed Woodman to convey a sense of fragility and vulnerability in relation to the external world, as suggested by the artist’s closed pose and anxious expression in this photograph. Although she was the model in most of her work, Woodman’s photographs do not function as typical self-portraits. Rather, she used her own image to explore the representation of gender and the relation of the body to its environment. Her use of objects associated with budding femininity, like the ‘Mary Jane’ shoes, set within a decaying interior space, a site often associated with female domesticity, challenges idealised, constructed notions of femininity.

The impression on the floor, which reveals the darker, rough floorboards below, creates the illusion of a body sinking through a surface, or perhaps floating through light. This supernatural imagery corresponds to the artist’s interest in the surrealist movement of the early twentieth century, and perhaps alludes to the American artist Man Ray’s signature Rayograms, which, in reverse of Woodman’s dark imprint, feature light bodies and objects on dark grounds. The feature may also refer directly to Erotique Voilée 1933 (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid), Man Ray’s portrait of his fellow surrealist Méret Oppenheim at a printing press. In Ray’s photograph, Oppenheim’s arm is smeared with ink, which creates a dark imprint of her body similar to the imprint Woodman created for her photograph.

Further reading
Carol Armstrong, ‘Francesca Woodman: A Ghost in the House of the Woman Artist’, in Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher (eds.), Women Artists at the Millennium, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2006, pp.337–69.
Jane Simon, ‘An Intimate Mode of Looking: Francesca Woodman's Photographs’, Emotion, Space and Society, no.3, May 2010, pp.28–59.
Meaghan Thurston, ‘‘At Home in Dust’: Francesca Woodman’s House Series, Revisited’, Forum, no.11, Autumn 2010, http://www.forumjournal.org/site/issue/11/meaghan-thurston, accessed 8 October 2013.

Emilie Reed
The University of Edinburgh
October 2013

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

Online caption

Woodman perches naked on a chair, appearing defensive and vulnerable. This is one of the few self-portraits where we see the artist’s full face. The vague black body imprinted on the floor seems to walk through the ground, as if descending into a nether world, while the desolate setting creates a chilling atmosphere. This is one of a series of photographs displaying the influence of Surrealism in the way it explores the supernatural. Woodman usually puts herself in the frame, although these are not conventional self-portraits. Instead, she explores issues of gender, self and the representation of the body in relation to its surroundings. An underlying fragility is emphasised by the small and intimate format of the photographs.