At the age of thirteen Francesca Woodman took her first self-portrait. From then, up until her untimely death in 1981, aged just 22 she produced an extraordinary body of work (some 800 photographs) acclaimed for its singularity of style and range of innovative techniques.
The following is a review of an exhibition of her work I saw last year at Victoria Miro:
“Francesca Woodman has been called a modernist, a surrealist and, even, a gothic artist. Her work carries echoes of all three traditions, but it evades categorisation. As a young woman, she photographed herself obsessively but often she appears as a blur of movement or a half-hidden figure, someone constantly trying to escape or hide. The end result is not self-portraiture, but a series of stills from a continuous performance in which she plays with the notion of the self, disguising, transforming and defacing her own body.
At Victoria Miro, around 50 of Woodman’s photographs – small, old-fashioned-looking prints that seem to belong to a much earlier time – pay testament to a short, but creatively productive life. It ended, while still in full flow, when she threw herself off a building in New York in January 1981, following a long bout of depression. She was just 22, but left an archive of some 800 images, many of which have still not been seen.
Like Sylvia Plath, Woodman is an artist whose death has often impinged on the various readings of her work, imbuing these already complex images with another layer of mystery and, in some cases, foreboding. In a series of photographs she made in the mid-70s, when she was a student of photography at Rhode Island School of Design, her blurred, shadowy self is spectral, ghost-like.
It seems unlikely, though, that Woodman was prefiguring her own death in her work, rather than playing with themes of identity and with the role that photography, and in particular portrait photography, can play in constructing a fixed – and therefore false – identity.
Sometimes she dresses up like the heroine of a Victorian novel – she collected vintage clothes long before it was fashionable – or as Alice about to disappear through the looking glass. In one famous image, she stands alongside two other naked women, each of them concealing their face behind a photograph of her face, while a different Francesca Woodman face, in a self-portrait pinned to the wall, gazes out at us too. As an exercise in undercutting the objectifying gaze of the camera, it is both provocative and playful. There is a mischievous imagination at work here, too, that has often been overlooked in critical studies of her work.
Seeing so many photographs of Woodman, mostly naked, often posing in empty rooms with peeling paint and fading wallpaper, is a slightly disconcerting experience, though. It’s not just that she becomes more elusive the more photographs you see, it’s more the tightrope walk she takes between an almost adolescent self-obsession and artistic self-exploration. There are echoes in her work of older photographic, as well as artistic, traditions…
For all that, there is a consistency to Woodman’s vision that is almost a signature of sorts, and, as such, rare in one so young. The handful of coloured prints made near the end of her life are beautiful in their own way – softer in tone and almost painterly in their use of colour – but they highlight the importance of black-and-white film in her work, how it makes her locations more mysterious and, yes, gothic, but also more intimate. The prints are small but that, too, adds to their atmosphere, their shadowy but powerful presence.
One cannot help but leave this show with a sense of regret for what might have been, though. The earliest photograph here was taken in Boulder, Colorado, in 1972. It is called simply Self-Portrait at Thirteen. In it, the young Woodman is fully clothed, her long hair entirely concealing her face, her left hand pressing a shutter lead that extends in a blur towards the camera – and us. It is as mysterious and elusive as any of her later nudes or performance photographs, and tells us that, even at 13, Woodman had found a way to hide in front of the camera, and, in doing so, had also found her abiding theme. Nearly 30 years after her death, she is still hiding from us in full view, as elusive and beguiling as ever.”
Sean O’Hagan, for The Guardian