Years ago I got a the book about Francesca Woodman‘s work as a present from a friend. I’d never heard of Francesca Woodman, but I was immediately intrigued by her photographs. Her short life was intense and full of passion , as was her work.
In 2010 a documentary by director C. Scott Willis about the artistic family Francesca came from, called The Woodmans, won an award at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Francesca Woodman Bio
Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) only lived to be 22 years old, but her remarkable body of work has continued to increase attention in the world of contemporary art since her suicide in 1981.
She was born to an artistic family in Denver, her mother, Betty Woodman, is a sculptor and ceramicist and her father, George Woodman, is a photographer and painter. Her older brother Charles later became an associate professor of electronic art.
Beginning in 1975, Francesca attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She studied in Rome between 1977 and 1978 in a RISD
honors program. A year later Francesca moved to New York “to make a career in photography”. She sent portfolios of her work to fashion photographers, but “her solicitations did not lead anywhere”.
Francesca was also deeply interested in the Surrealist movement and neo-Pictorialism—as seen in the work of fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville—and both movements are evident in the abstraction, motifs, and ghostly air of her work.
While her work would remain unknown for the entirety of her life, today she is widely celebrated for her black-and-white depictions of young women, frequently in the nude and blurred by slow shutter speed and long exposure. Many of her photographs are self-portraits—though you rarely can see Woodman’s face unobstructed—and men are an infrequent presence. Francesca made a number of short films as well, along the same aesthetics of her photographs.
Sometimes she dressed 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.
Her nudes often recall Bellocq‘s haunting Storyville portraits of New Orleans prostitutes. One startling photograph of her legs bound tightly in ribbon or tape, her hand holding a striped glove that rests between her legs, has traces of the disturbing doll photographers of the German surrealist photographer Hans Bellmer.
In late 1980 Francesca became depressed due to the failure of her work to attract attention and to a broken relationship. Her life ended when she threw herself off a building in New York in January 1981. She was just 22, but left an archive of some 800 images.
Francesca’s photography was first exhibited at Wellesley College in 1986 after it was discovered by Ann Gabhart, the director of the Wellesley Art Museum, in the Woodmans’ family home in Colorado. Her first retrospective opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2011 and traveled to the Guggenheim in 2012. The photographs are in the permanent collections of both the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and prominent artists such as Cindy Sherman continue to cite her as an inspiration for their work.
Documentary: The Woodmans
The tragic story of Francesca Woodman, a young photographer renowned for her extraordinary nude self-portraits, is also the story of her brilliantly artistic family. With THE WOODMANS, director C. Scott Willis shows how the struggle for fame in the high-stakes world of art resulted in tragedy, and then in healing and redemption. As a family, the Woodmans are noted for their talent. Betty Woodman, in particular, is an internationally renowned ceramicist whose work has been shown at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. But it is the fate of Francesca, the youngest Woodman, that will haunt them over the years. By piecing together Francesca’s photos, never-before-seen experimental videos and personal journals, and through candid conversations with George and Betty Woodman, Charlie Woodman and a host of friends, Willis depicts four lives committed to art. And whose art lives through them. It is an extraordinary debut film that explores what it truly means to create.