Francesca Woodman

Untitled

1975–80

Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Image: 128 x 129 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
AR00355

Summary

In this black and white photograph Francesca Woodman, naked and looking at the camera, appears seated on a cushioned wooden stool low to the ground with her left arm covering her left breast and her toes curling around the edges of a rug. On the rug to her right stands an unidentified naked woman whose head is out of the frame and whose right hand rests on her belly. A mirror propped against the wall behind her reflects the shadowed backs of her legs. Words are scrawled on the wall above the mirror and, above these, two cloths hang from a horizontal beam, one showing several unclear words and an image. Above Woodman a photograph is tacked to the wall, as well as another cloth that hangs lopsided. The left third of the image is dominated by shelves that contain books, papers and bottles of different sizes. Below the shelves an array of papers and various objects sit on the floor.

This photograph was created while Woodman was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence from 1975 to 1978. At RISD Woodman was a fiercely dedicated and independent student who devoted herself exhaustively to her work. She set up a studio and living space in the shabby rooms of a former dry goods store, and frequently worked in nearby abandoned houses and other rundown spaces. This work features Woodman prominently as its subject. When asked by her roommate and close friend Sloan Rankin why she was so often the subject of her own photographs, Woodman replied: ‘It’s a matter of convenience, I’m always available’ (quoted in Rankin 1998, p.35). This photograph is also notably small-scale. Woodman’s square photographs rarely measure more than fifteen centimetres in height or width.

In this photograph the compositional ‘decapitation’ of the standing woman exemplifies Woodman’s violent use of cropping, something seen in her work (see, for example, Tate AR00360 and AR00362). The cropping of one of the two subjects suggests that Woodman treated the two bodies with no more importance than the objects lying around them. Writing about Woodman’s work, the critic Margaret Sundell has argued that, in photography, ‘not only is the [subject’s] body submitted to a flattened surface, one’s subjectivity is also imperiled in [the] movement from flesh to image’ (quoted in Sundell 1996, p.439). In this image the compositional beheading of the woman on the left renders her body anonymous, suggesting that Woodman was experimenting with the loss of subjectivity. Indeed, art historian Harriet Riches has written that, by ‘taking advantage of the camera’s ability to crop and frame the body’, Woodman ‘exploits a photographic language of violence, as she explores the medium’s proclivity for excising subjectivity from the world’ (Riches 2004, p.99).

Further reading
Margaret Sundell, ‘Vanishing Points: The Photography of Francesca Woodman’ in M. Catherine de Zegher (ed.), Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Art: In, of, and from the Feminine, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1996, pp.435–39.
Sloan Rankin, ‘Peach Mumble – Ideas Cooking’ in Hervé Chandès (ed.), Francesca Woodman, New York 1998.
Harriet Riches, ‘A Disappearing Act: Francesca Woodman’s Portrait of a Reputation’, Oxford Art Journal, vol.27, no.1, 2004, pp.97–113.

John White
University of Edinburgh
January 2015

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

Online caption

The bodies of the two naked women in this photograph are cropped and decentred; Woodman treats them with no more importance than the scattered objects that surround them. Here Woodman uses a mirror as a prop – it becomes a symbol of artistic self-reflexivity, reflecting the ‘eye’ of the camera back upon itself. Her photographs explore issues of gender and self, looking at the representation of the body in relation to its surroundings. They are not conventional portraits, since figures are either partially hidden or concealed by slow exposures that blur them into surreal, ghostly forms. This underlying fragility is emphasised by the small and intimate format of the photographs.