Monday, 30 April 2012

Francesca Woodman

The social network site Flickr has over 2 million entries under the search term "self portrait", under the term "me" it has 84 million. Facebook has approaching 1 billion users - all are encouraged to put a image of themselves as part of their signature. The first photograph that Woodman is purported to have taken is this. It shows someone - the gender of the subject is only derived by the title "Self portrait at thirteen  Francesca Woodman" as it is written in the artist's hand - turning her head away from the camera, her hand is seen holding the shutter release cable, thereby connecting her to the viewer. I am interested in this image and juxtaposing it with today's generation of thirteen year olds and their predilection to put themselves in the frame. The current generation of social media savvy youth who continually turn their mobile 'phone onto themselves usually in an expression of ecstasy, whether fleeting or sustained, do so with a similar perspective. The arm extended, as in Woodman's photograph, and then turned on to the "self" to capture the image, the critical difference is that Woodman turns away in contemplation from the viewer, whereas the "me" is all to keen to represent themselves as ecstatic in the moment (of course I generalise). Woodman uses her face as a descriptor in her images, deliberately including or removing it dependent on the context or narrative she was concerned with at the time.
Most, if not all, of the photographs in the Phaidon "Francesca Woodman" book, edited by Chris Townsend, pose questions both of what was Woodman's intent behind the staging of these carefully constructed images, and, of the viewer of these photographs. Townsend is at pains to point out that Woodman was steeped in art history, particularly photographic art and, among the essays printed in the book, there is one relating the influences of American Gothic to her work and another on her fascination with Surrealism. There doesn't seem to be a demarkation of development, of Woodman taking different roads in terms of her art; dying as she did at 22, her progression as an artist took on more influences from the time she was at the Rhode Island school and also her time in Italy, but there appears to be a remarkable consistency in her aesthetic.
Woodman's self introduction into the frame wasn't about "me" to me, it was more to do with her questioning the meaning of life. As with most pubescent lives, Woodman seems concerned with her own burgeoning sexuality and also her place in the environment - there seem to be as many of the images that are taken inside as outside.
There is a level of sophistication of image making that I am still unable to fully fathom, this maybe due to the need to exhibit all, or at least as many as possible, of her now limited stock of images which could not be curated by the artist. It maybe therefore that the series of images in this book are incoherent from an artist's perspective, but I think it maybe my lack of visual comprehension that limits me.
I do find the images compelling and I have to say that I wasn't looking forward to thinking about the images too deeply, as I think I was wary of what it might uncover about me. I have been aware of her work for some years and had seen small collections or individual images, but I knew that she died tragically and that she explored emotions in photographs of raw visceral intensity and I have always wondered about the connection of the emotional strength of her images and her tragic death. I am no wiser on that point, but the photographs still have the power to disturb me.
The book is a fascinating collection of photographs and essays into her influences, Siskind, Meatyard, Michals, Serra and many more that I intend to follow through with. It also has copies of her hand written notes on the construction of some of the images and her thoughts which are fascinating, showing the processes of creation. Here are two paragraphs from one of her journals:

"I am interested in the way people relate to space. The best way to do this is to depict their interactions to the boundaries of these spaces. Started doing this with ghost pictures, people fading into a flat plane - ie becoming the wall under wallpaper or of an extension of the wall onto the floor. Closer to what I am doing now is my beginning last spring of [M] or myself enclosed by a glass coffee table. Also video tapes - people becoming, or emerging from environment.
        Glass makes a nice definition of space because it delineates a form while revealing what is inside it is also a cold and somewhat harsh material. I want to do two series of pictures using the glass box in waterman."

And another from when she was just 15:

August 9
"I think when I get home I should take pictures of objects: purse, hand, etc "clues to a lost woman," also objects with flesh. Touch up highlights on objects or flesh with vaseline, tint nipples for nudes. Picture of foot and egg backlit ward - salmagundi"

These are very real references to several of Woodman's photographs here, demonstrating that these images were composed firstly in her mind, as part of her investigations.There have been some criticisms of this book in that some of the images have been reproduced larger than actual; but it is a formidable introduction into her work, albeit tragically curtailed after just a few short years.
An extraordinarily brave and free artist, one wonders what might have been.

Here is a short video by the artist and the film "The Woodmans" is available for download here and provides an extraordinary level of background to the artist's life from her family and student colleagues, and is very moving.

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