Discovering Francesca Woodman


How is it that until about a week ago I'd never heard of the photographer Francesca Woodman? She has been hovering about in my universe for years, but I'm embarrassed that I completely missed her. It took a look through LACMA's newly opened In Wonderland: Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists to be enlightened. Fate intervened and our paths finally crossed.

Woodman is one of the nearly 50 artists included in this "first exhibition devoted to the female surrealist artists who worked in Mexico and the U.S," as the press materials read. Born in 1958, she is the youngest and one of the lesser known artists in the show that includes superstars of the movement Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois and Louise Nevelson.

francesca+woodman+3.jpgWoodman's black and white images, made primarily with a square format camera and printed small, demand that the viewer come in close. Reading the wall label next to the first photograph, "Self Portrait talking to Vince" (top photo here), told me that her life was shockingly brief (1958-1981) and that she photographed in Providence, R.I. My first thought was that perhaps she had been a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I graduated. Later in the day a Google search confirmed it. Woodman was a photography student at RISD from 1975 to 1978, around the time I was there, and in the same department, although she was 2 years behind me. It's entirely possible that we may have passed in the hallway or on the street. Other images in the LACMA show were made in Rome where Woodman spent her junior year as part of RISD's European Honors Program.

Like the mystery of her abbreviated life, Woodman's images are haunting and provocative. The level of her work is highly sophisticated for someone so young and still in school. Woodman often photographed herself, sometimes nude, sometimes clothed. She used props, blurring, and dilapidated interiors (not hard to find in Providence.) She experimented with cut paper, reflections and alternative processes. She used her sexuality, her relationships and her environment to develop themes in her work. The disturbing spookiness in some of them hit me hard. Sadly, an ominous feeling about her proved true. I learned that Woodman committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22, not long after graduation and a move to New York City.

In the 2010 documentary The Woodmans, a revealing and sometimes unsettling look at the photographer's family that I watched after seeing the show at LACMA, her close RISD friend Sloan Rankin acknowledges that Woodman was far more artistically evolved than the other students. But also chronically needy. "She was a fragile person. It caused her to make beautiful pictures," Rankin says. As I watched the film, clues about her emotionally complex life emerged. Maybe also clues into her imagemaking. I felt little sympathy for her parents, both accomplished artists in their own right. They are clearly still wrestling with not only their daughter's suicide, but with the fact that her artistic success has far eclipsed their own. "As Francesca has become more and more famous, we've become the famous artists family," her mother Betty says in one scene.

While Woodman is part of a large group at LACMA, she is currently the star of her own show up north at SFMOMA. Francesca Woodman is the most comprehensive exhibition of her work ever mounted. Her RISD work is well represented, as well as her experiments with the diazotype process (think architects' blueprints) and her fashion photographs. The show fully explores Woodman's body of work, which impressed me as hugely accomplished for someone barely entering adulthood. She had hoped to pursue fashion photography in New York, but struggled with finding opportunities.

Even a drop of the attention her work is now receiving might have been a huge gift to Woodman following her graduation from RISD. She battled to survive professionally in New York, and according to her father was "discouraged and demoralized in her personal life." There was intense therapy, medication and a failed first attempt at suicide. Making photographs became a rarer and rarer occurrence.

Then again, perhaps no amount of validation or success would have been enough to save the life of a young woman so deeply in pain. Her apparently overwhelming inner demons broke her spirit before she could find a way to harness them. Surely trouble was brewing long before she arrived in Providence. However, her images have survived and taken on a brilliant life of their own. Although I'm late to the game, I'm glad that at last I've found them.

Trailer from the documentary on Woodman's life:

"In Wonderland: Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists" runs at LACMA's Resnick Pavilion through May 6.

"Francesca Woodman" runs at SF MOMA though Feb. 20 and will travel to the Guggenheim Museum in New York in spring 2012.

Photographs by Francesca Woodman courtesy of the Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

More by Judy Graeme:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed