In this square black and white photograph Francesca Woodman stands with her back against a wall. Her body is oriented towards the camera, but she bends over so that her head – which, mostly out of frame and seen from the top, is little but a nose – faces the ground. She wears a patterned dress or blouse and skirt and is barefoot, while her arms hang down in front of her, blurred in action. The wall and skirting board behind her are peeling and cracked, and on the floor around her feet are dead leaves, plaster and assorted debris. A slant of light from an unseen source creates a bright diagonal line that passes from Woodman’s right hand across her right knee and left calf, before ending in a patch of light on the floor to her left. From her right hand – and perhaps also from her left hand – hangs a flimsy material, obscured by the blur and the light. The image is captured at an angle so that it tilts down to the left.
This photograph was created while Woodman was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, USA 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 150 mm in height or width.
Writing of the photographs in which Woodman obscures herself in abandoned houses (see, for example, Untitled 1975–80, Tate AR00357), art critic Margaret Sundell suggests that the artist ‘stages an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with the peeling walls and chipped floors’ (quoted in Sundell 1996, p.435). Woodman plays a similar game here with the viewer, hiding her face and blurring her arms and the flimsy material in her hand, all the while presenting herself to the viewer. She does so within a space that is very similar to – quite possibly the same as – the abandoned spaces featured in many of her Providence photographs.
Sundell points to Woodman’s frequently childish attire to argue that these photographs convey ‘a sense of “playing house,” of the way a child feels at once overwhelmed and omnipotently invisible when infiltrating a place that adults once owned.’ (Sundell 1996, p.435.) In this work, Woodman’s clothing does appear, if not childish, then perhaps that of a child trying to appear adult. Her bare feet seem out of place with her frilly garments, as do her active arms, which perhaps tear at the peeling wallpaper or reach down to scoop up the dead leaves.
This photograph also bears a striking formal resemblance to Woodman’s earliest work, the well-known Self-Portrait at Thirteen from 1972 (reproduced in Chris Townsend, Francesca Woodman, London 2006, p.75). In this photograph, a young Woodman, seated, extends her left hand towards the camera. A ray of light seems to emanate from the camera, though this ray is most likely to be a pole on which the camera has been mounted. In Untitled, a similar ray of light now appears to originate from her right hand. Moreover, in Self-Portrait at Thirteen the artist also obscures her face, on this occasion with her long hair. In this way, Untitled continues Woodman’s project of hiding in plain sight that she had begun as a young teenager.
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.435–9.
Sloan Rankin, ‘Peach Mumble – Ideas Cooking’, in Hervé Chandès (ed.), Francesca Woodman, New York 1998, pp.33–7.
Cory Keller (ed.), Francesca Woodman, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 2012, reproduced p.15.
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