Francesca Woodman

Untitled

1975–80

Artist
Francesca Woodman 1958–1981
Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Image: 135 x 133 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
AR00361

Not on display

Summary

Francesca Woodman sits along the right edge of this black and white photograph. Her body is angled towards the camera and largely blocks the window visible behind her. Her face is in shadow. She wears dark, heavy-looking clothing and her hands are placed in her lap, where they stand out amongst the black. Her hands are further illuminated by a slant of light that directs the eye to the left, where an array of framed photographic portraits – mostly of children – are arranged on a small table. The space is otherwise bare except for what looks like a painting or other piece of art hung on the wall in the upper left corner of the image. Written in dark ink below the bottom right corner of the photograph, on the off-white border, is a squiggle that resembles the number 5.

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.

Woodman made this photograph shortly after her grandmother’s funeral, which may identify her dark clothing as mourning dress. Art historian Peggy Phelan has argued that Woodman’s photographs were rehearsals for her ultimate suicide in 1981 at age twenty-two and that ‘her preoccupation with [death] permeates her understanding of photography’ (Phelan 2002, p.988). Phelan criticised much preceding scholarly work on Woodman for shying away from the artist’s suicide and pointed to ways in which Woodman ‘traces her own disappearance’ through her photographs (Phelan 2002, p.999). In this photograph Woodman can certainly be said to obscure herself in an act of disappearance. She is effaced by the darkness, her facial features blending into the black of her clothing. That her hands are illuminated might be taken to signify her role as photographer – the ‘artist’s hand’ made visible. However, her hands are rather still and cold-looking. Phelan has written that hands ‘haunt [Woodman’s] frames’ and that in many of her photographs ‘hands function as faces, intimately revealing portraits of affective states’ (Phelan 2002, p.992). In this sense the eerie, almost disconnected hands in this photograph may stand in for Woodman’s obscured face, conveying similar information about the sitter’s psychological and emotional state. The group of portrait photographs also illuminated by the light might suggest the power of images to preserve a person’s state in time, or else the capacity of images to outlive their subject.

Although she was about twenty years old at the time this photograph was taken, Woodman has the air of someone much older. Indeed, the light lends much of her visible hair a greying quality, and her clothing is quite matronly. Betsy Berne, a close friend of Woodman’s at RISD, has discussed this ambiguity: ‘[t]he contorted blurred figures in [Woodman’s] pictures capture a bleak wisdom beyond their years like that of a weary old woman who has seen too much and, simultaneously, the sweet naïveté of a pre-adolescent’ (quoted in Marian Goodman Gallery 2004, p.5). In this photograph Woodman appears as the former, perhaps in the guise of her late grandmother.

Further reading
Sloan Rankin, ‘Peach Mumble – Ideas Cooking’ in Hervé Chandès (ed.), Francesca Woodman, New York 1998.
Peggy Phelan, ‘Francesca Woodman’s Photography: Death and the Image One More Time’, Signs, vol.27, no.4, Summer 2002, pp.979–1004.
Francesca Woodman: Photographs 1975–1980, exhibition catalogue, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York 2004.

John White
University of Edinburgh
February 2015

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

Online caption

Woodman took this photograph of herself not long after her grandmother’s funeral. Old family photographs sit on the table beside her, whilst she is bathed in a transparent light suggesting a spiritual presence. Woodman has openly acknowledged the influence of Duane Michals’s surreal photographs for such images, which explore movement and transparency. Her photographs explore issues of gender and self, looking at the representation of the body in relation to its surroundings. She usually puts herself in the frame, although these are not conventional self-portraits, since she is either partially hidden or concealed by slow exposures that blur her moving figure into a ghostly presence. This underlying fragility is emphasised by the small and intimate format of the photographs.

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