Francesca Woodman who will be remembered again at an upcoming show at the Victoria Miro Gallery, for a certain sector of the public, achieved stardom simply through her suicide at the early age of 22. Yet the strength of her oeuvre shows that there was far more depth to this photographer.
Francesca Woodman was raised in an artistic family and with strong Italian language skills moved easily between the US and Rome in the late ‘70’s. While in Rome she picked up on an essential mix of Italian Futurism and the European Surrealists. She graduated from the Rhode Island Institute of Design in 1979 and settled in New York to establish herself as a photographer.
From the age of 13 Francesca Woodman began to portray herself in her photography. A facile tendency in pop psychology and wisdom in hindsight links her death and mental state with a narcissistic streak. Yet a friend recalls “ … she was her own best model … she alone knew what she was after … she was the one that was always available.’’ This was no more than a young adult lacking the confidence to direct a model and the resources to hire the more experienced model.
Beyond narcissism a mirror (Self Deceit 1978-79) becomes a device to carry the viewer’s eye and to construct a theatre space in which three questions can be posed. First, what do we viewers want of the image? Next, what does the artist want of the image? Last, what does the artist want of the self. Photographers become very fixed on the final image and when the artist and the photographer become one and the same the nature of that theatrical space becomes a very tight spot. The mirror, echoing the renaissance painter's skull, becomes a device to remind the viewer that they are observed – a memento mori to re-balance the equation.
This constriction is spelled out in large type in the Space 2 series while at RISD where a museum display case is pressed into service. A theatre of the self is enacted here, far away from social life together with society’s demands on and definitions of the body. With no room for movement the cost and injury from broken glass becomes a defining factor for the shot. Yet that remains the limit of our ability to enter the space with our answers—the grime and dilapidation of any space used remain the viewer’s problem.
This very early photograph, from her 13th year, perhaps hangs onto the teenager’s preoccupation with privacy but by holding the shutter release cord taut, Woodman remains firmly in charge of the 3rd eye and her relationship with the viewer. Thus as with any young person, the demarcation of self is made and we can look for the distinctive voice.
We do not know in detail how Francesca developed her work in New York with reference to the exhibitions she saw, the artists she talked with. We can see or imagine we can see points of contact with Ana Mendieta and Hanna Wilke. We are told that she admired Duane Michals and Debora Turbeville. These names give a clue, the power of narrative and the scope for the photographer to run with or disrupt the story-line.
The conceptual art strand in photography has been overall the saving grace to develop itself from the worthy and the maudlin of the documentary tradition, or the finite craft skill of the black and white art photograph. Parenthetically, it must be recorded that colour photography has only been acceptable in art photography since the xyz exhibition of 197x and naturally the majority of Woodman’s work is monochrome. Since Stieglitz’ 1911 record of the Duchamps urinal, photography has offered its evidential solidity to record and perpetuate the act depicted as being the central artistic offering. Photography makes possible this recovery of the event, the traces are archived; now, while it captures the ephemeral form – her contemporaries, Ana Mendieta and Hanna Wilke remain in the recording layer of the image, Woodman becomes more the photographer in her control of the medium.
Here by lighting, blurring in movement or hiding with hair the image of the face, she continues to define the content; obscuring the identity of the model, she retains the right to re-shoot again and again. By refusing to show the means of control of the shutter the viewer is held in further check to deny knowledge of the photographer. Beyond the negative reading of her suicide we are enabled to see the potential to relive this life in many other lives.
If her working career was brought to an early end, this body of work, through its gift of anonymity retains the potential to inspire, to be owned by photographers as much now as then.
Francesca Woodman 17 Nov 2010 - 22 Jan 2011
Victoria Miro Gallery, 020 7336 8109
16-17 Wharf Road
London N1 7RW
Victoria Miro is delighted to announce an exhibition of work by Francesca Woodman drawn from her recent retrospective which opened in 2009 at Espacio AV, Murcia, touring to SMS Contemporanea, Siena and the Palazzo della Ragione, Milan in 2010