Francesca Woodman, photographer, 1958-1981.
Studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence from 1975 to 1979 and won a scholarship to Rome for one year.
Born into a family of artists, she began taking photographs around the age of 13, working constantly until her early death in 1981.
People write about the tragedy of her too short life: the brilliant young photographer who astonished her teachers with the technical brilliance of her work, about the few years of prolific output and discovery that she ended with a jump from a New York apartment window when she was barely twenty one. but that would pull away from the pictures themselves. Her life was not a tragedy. Only her death.
As her father, George Woodman put it: 'When people think about artists, nothing gives them more satisfaction than the contemplation of the artist's death.'
She didn't leave a suicide note but in one of her last letters to her closest friend, she wrote:
'My life at this point is like very old coffee-cup sediment and I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, ie, some work, my friendship with you, some other artefacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things.'
I saw her work at The Photographer’s Gallery in London, in a touring retrospective from The Cartier Foundation in Paris, and there seemed to be so many of her pictures framed so simply on the walls, hung on the square columns in the gallery. So many, but I was hungry for hundreds more from the 10,000 or so extant negatives. No colour, just black and white. Mostly small, square prints.
Vanishing. Disappearing. Claiming space. Blending in to the space around her. Drifting out of dark corners, or edging into a frame. Face. Body. Limbs. Defining the edges of where she begins and her space ends. Finding textures, patterns in walls. Bare rooms with broken floors. a white skeleton leaf against a smooth bare back (echoed in the herringbone breaks in the plaster). Games with gravity. Tugging herself out of her own pictures by her hair wrapped in a fist. Trapping herself between mirrors and glass. Abandoned spaces littered with animal furs, mirrors, books, velvet chairs, dead birds, scraps of lace, silk slips and patterned dresses. White socks and childish black shoes at the end of a naked adult body, topped with a distorted picture of her face held up in front of her head. Ethereal beauty with strong bare feet planted on raw wood.
She used herself in the majority of the pictures. They are not self-portraits, it's more that she used herself as a model, because she was there, and she had control over the totality of the image that way. and she is naked in so many, but the pictures are neither overtly sexual, nor a denial of sexuality. These are not traditional nudes. There is no awkwardness, nor a defiant, "see, I can be naked and not care" shout. And that seems so rare, so rare in a woman her age. She is naked because so many of the pictures need that. the pictures seem to contain her, to be her.
And the prints are as luminous as her skin. The clarity, and the perfectly controlled fluidity of confusion mix so well together. A painfully sharp image, centred on an ambiguous smeared figure, squirming into a wall. a blur of limbs or cloth in a doorway.
Ah, it sounds so prosaic like this. and there is so much magic in the images. Surreal, without being Surrealist. Art, without being Arty. These are pictures I would like to live with, surround myself with, not because I want to possess them, but because I think they would never cease to surprise me. I want to see them again and again, so they no longer scare me with wonder and, sadly, envy. they are so haunting, so disturbing, so reassuring at the same time.
And beautiful. Shockingly beautiful.