Falling squarely into the category of "Photographers You Should Know" (but might not yet) is Francesca Woodman, who is receiving a flurry of attention right now.
And who is Francesca Woodman?
Given that her complete catalogue is composed almost entirely of work she produced as a student, the posthumous critical esteem for American photographer Francesca Woodman is astonishing. Unlike music or math, where precocious displays of talent are not uncommon, photography tends not to have prodigies. Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 at age 22, is considered a rare exception. That she has achieved such status is all the more remarkable considering only a quarter of the approximately 800 images she produced—many of them self-portraits—have ever been seen by the public.
Now, on the thirtieth anniversary of her death, Woodman is having something of a moment. In coming months, her work will be shown by several British galleries, and later this year San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art will mount a major retrospective of her work, the first of its kind in the United States. In 2012, the show will travel to the Guggenheim. The Woodmans—C. Scott Willis’s thoughtful new documentary about the photographer and her family—opened last week at Film Forum in New York.
Those are the opening two paragraphs of Elizabeth Gumport's article "The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman" at The New York Review of Books. (If you're able to follow up on only one of these links, that's the one to hit.)
It took 24 years for her first retrospective monograph to appear, Francesca Woodman, by Chris Townshend, from Phaidon. It is, fortunately, excellent. (It's no longer in stock but still available in Great Britain.) I don't own it but I was able to spend some time with it in the bookstore at the AIC when I went down to see the H.C.-B. exhibit a few months ago. I guess I have to forbear from showing you the book cover, as it is not "school and workplace friendly." (Americans can embrace every sort of depravity, but god forbid we show each other, in polite company, any hint of pubic hair.) But it struck me when I saw it as a rich trove and worth the asking price.
Quoted in the publisher's material:
Art critic Arthur Danto said of Woodman's photographs, "It is impossible to view her work without being drawn into the vast questions it raises about life, art and the meaning and embodiment of sex.... Her work unfolds over time like the oeuvre of a brilliant and precocious poet, like Keats or Rimbaud, whose voice is present in every line."
The association to tortured poets of distinctive voice and expressive bodies of work is apt, although I might have chosen different ones. Baudelaire, or even Chatterton. Speaking of whom, Alastair Sooke, writing in The Telegraph, notes that "Rightly or wrongly, Woodman’s suicide remains the prism through which many people see her predominantly autobiographical work, which has an intense, intimate and introspective flavour." To which her father, George Woodman, retorts, "...there are people whose attraction to Francesca's work is bound up with their sense of her tragic story and without the tragic story they might not be so interested in the work. But I don’t think that, as a way of 'reading’ her work, this is particularly productive."
In reading about Woodman, a sense of her father emerges as a realist who struggles to bring the more high-flown critics back down to earth, even as the art world increasingly bestows the hagiographic apparatus of its approval. And yet, whenever I read quotes from him, a little voice in the back of my brain pipes up that history is written by survivors.
And yet the photographer still tells her story, in a way. The trick is to let the work speak. In Woodman's case, though, it's tough to take the work as it is and let it stand for itself. It just...brings up so much. There are certainly echoes in it of numberless high school girls' photography class self-portrait experiments, and some critics have run with that, casting her as an apotheosis of the romantic juvenile. Robert Boyd says, "...another thing many might feel looking at her work is jealousy. She was producing brilliant photos when she was still in high school." There are also echoes of many photographers, Meatyard and Arbus and Cindy Sherman (who greatly admires Woodman and has a lot in common with her, as the Sooke article discusses—excerpt below), and of the work of just as many poets. The work is engrossing, but it's a riddle. It is enigmatic, eloquent but not clear. Maybe immutably so.
"...I have been mesmerised with her history," [Cindy Sherman] says. "We were both in New York at the exact same time, living in the same neighbourhood, close in age and circumnavigating the same art world, both expressing ourselves through photographing ourselves. Yet we never met or knew of one another."
Today Sherman is a great admirer of Woodman's art. "She had few boundaries and made art out of nothing: empty rooms with peeling wallpaper and just her figure. No elaborate stage set-up or lights," she says. "Her process struck me more the way a painter works, making do with what's right in front of her, rather than photographers like myself who need time to plan out what they're going to do."
And of course there's the movie, mentioned earlier. Movies are just so frustrating for me...the closest place to me it's showing is Chicago, and I guess I should be thankful it isn't farther away than that. I guess I have to molder away waiting for the DVD. (Tauntingly, an Amazon search for "The Woodmans" brings up "The Woodsman," a 2005 Kevin Bacon film. No, no. What a difference the placement of an "s" makes.)
Here's the trailer. (You might as well be frustrated too.)
(Thanks to James Bulloch, Dave Kee, Archer Sully, and Cal Amari)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Luis C. Aribe: "There was an article on F. Woodman by Richard B. Woodward in The Wall Street Journal of January 19th, 2011. Committing suicide at a young age seems to be a good career move for artists—the Sylvia Plath Effect, as Woodward calls it—even for photographers, though it has its obvious disadvantages."
Mike adds: A taste of that article: "...we can't escape. The bony finger of death points at all the photographs, videos and anguished journal entries, forcing us to see them as foreshadowing the end."
Featured Comment by Calvin Amari: "Much art of significance is ambiguous. That is not to say that it is unfocussed or muddy, but rather that a purposeful ambiguity is present as a device that serves the artist's purposes. Although it may do some harm to the poetry of Woodman's work to break it down is such an analytical way, she does consistently employ the ambiguity of simultaneously revealing and hiding. That may not seem so much, but much art of significance is simple as well. To have developed—at any age—this device as a signature element of her work, to have done so in a way that is not heavy and labored, is no small thing. In fact, it is quite a big thing and not at all common.
"I confess years ago I came to Woodman's work many years ago a bit too skeptically, viewing it as typical student work of a particular genre but with a back-story that the art world would eat up. In the beginning of the Woodman phenomenon, a small portfolio of work was published and it seemed that these oft-reproduced photos were the 'signature' images of her best work. In the intervening years, however, I have seen perhaps hundreds of vintage prints, many not reproduced in the books and catalogs. What is striking—if striking is the right word for an appreciation that has developed slowly and continuously—is that so many of Woodman's images succeed at the same high level as those somewhat famous signature pieces. Years of exposure, so to speak, have convinced me that she is the real deal."