Francesca Woodman

Untitled, New York


Not on display

Francesca Woodman 1958–1981
Photograph, gelatin silver print on film
Image: 98 × 105 mm
frame: 458 × 402 × 20 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
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


Untitled 1979–80 is a small black and white photograph by American photographer Francesca Woodman. Taken at a slightly oblique angle, it depicts an interior space with a large sash window and a wooden floor. To the left of the image is a female figure – Woodman herself – whose body is cropped to reveal only her lower half, which is delineated with bright natural light coming from the window. While she wears boots and a shirt or jumper, Woodman’s lower half appears to be bare. The back of her body is cast in heavy shadow, as is the armchair that sits behind and to the right of the figure. Draped over the back of the armchair is a large pale fur. The chair itself appears to be empty. On the windowsill is an indistinguishable form, which resembles crumpled paper or clothing.

This work, like many others by Woodman, is left untitled, and the exact date on which it was taken is uncertain. This ambiguity also pervades the image itself: while it is a form of self-portrait, Woodman’s torso is cropped, and what is visible of her is obscured by shadow. The clarity that the natural light from the window should allow is subverted: what should reveal the figure in fact causes her shape to distort and disappear, dismantling the supposed certainty of a self-portrait. In this image Woodman seems to oscillate between a desire to be seen and an urge to be hidden, causing her to be at once present and yet absent within the frame.

While at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1975 to 1978, Woodman had used an old dry goods store as a living space and studio. These dilapidated quarters, as well as the abandoned houses in the surrounding neighbourhood, became sites for much of her photographic work. This photograph was taken in a similar interior setting to those she had used during her studies. Here, Woodman juxtaposes the agency and sexuality of her young body with the timeworn space she inhabits. Art historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau contends that the domestic interiors within which Woodman performs before the camera almost engulf her figure, as the artist plays on the cultural associations between women and domestic space, linking ‘the woman's body to the walls and surfaces it seems bonded to, repeat[ing] the theme of the body as itself a surface’ (Solomon-Godeau 1991, p.252). Solomon-Godeau therefore reads Woodman’s work as a reflection on a form of domestic bliss that has crumbled, as the female body collapses, sacrificing herself to a space that is also falling apart.

The artist places her body alongside a series of props, producing a carefully staged, somewhat theatrical scene. Art historian Harriet Riches has noted ‘the immense importance that [Woodman] gave to her costumes and props – to the carefully hoarded vintage clothing and strange found objects’, the reappearance of these objects throughout the artist’s work ‘lending her project a sense of serial continuity’ (Riches 2011, p.73). The surfaces of these domestic objects contrast with one another, from the natural fur, skin and wood, to the manmade artificiality of the armchair and clothes. Woodman was highly aware of the tactility and symbolism evoked by these surfaces and textures, yet within their flattened reproduction in the photographic medium she denies this sensory experience. Coupled with the small size of the image, Woodman instigates both an intimate sensuality and a guarded distance between viewer and photograph.

The fur, which is draped over the chair, is a common fetish object and a motif of female animalistic sexuality, and was often used as such by the surrealists. Several critics have considered Woodman’s work in relation to surrealism, although as art historian Chris Townsend notes, the artist’s ‘encounter with surrealism was often tangential and intermittent’ (Townsend 2006, p.28). In this image the mystery with which Woodman presents herself, as well as the sharp contrasts of dark versus light and youth (of body) versus age (of interior), demonstrate a surrealist sensibility. Woodman was also fascinated by the work of American fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville (born 1932), who was heavily influenced by surrealism. In particular, the dark ambiguity of Turbeville’s photographs, and her use of dilapidated interior settings and semi-nude models are echoed in Woodman’s work. Familiar with classical representations of female nudes in art history and the objectification implied by such representation, in this image Woodman presents a semi-nude figure that is not classically reclined and stationary but upright and escaping the frame of the photograph. In Untitled, New York 1979–80, then, Woodman moves away both physically and stylistically from the symbolism of the fur and the objectified female body of the Western tradition.

The eighteen photographs in the ARTIST ROOMS collection by Woodman were originally owned by Benjamin P. Moore, her boyfriend at the time, who is pictured in Untitled 1975–80 (Tate AR00363) and alongside Woodman in Untitled, Rome, Italy 1977–8 (Tate AR00353).

Further reading 
Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock, Minneapolis 1991.
Chris Townsend, Francesca Woodman: Scattered in Space and Time, London 2006.
Harriet Riches, ‘Girlish Games: Playfulness and “Drawingness” in the work of Francesca Woodman and Lucey Gunning’, in Catherine Grant and Lori Waxman (eds.), Girls! Girls! Girls! in Contemporary Art, Bristol 2011, pp.65–86.

Hayley Gault
University of Edinburgh
October 2015

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

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Online caption

Most of this photograph is bathed in a blinding light, whilst a half dressed-female disappears into it. In stark contrast is the black chair in the foreground, onto which a fur stole has been casually thrown. Fur is a common Surrealist motif; seen here alongside a naked female it seems to suggest feral sexuality. Woodman’s 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 most often, hovering between voyeur and seductress. These are not conventional self-portraits, since as 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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