Who Was Francesca Woodman? 13 Facts About The Photographer

Francesca Woodman is considered a tragic hero of photography. But her evanescent and intimate photographic artworks transcend her life’s mystery to reveal a haunting look at femininity, otherness, and corporeity.

Mar 5, 2021By Carolina Sanmiguel
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Photos by Francesca Woodman; with detail of Polka Dots by Francesca Woodman, 1976, via the New York Times

 

Francesca Goodman is considered one of the most enigmatic photographers of the 20th century. Her legendary career was short but fruitful. Sure, the mystery surrounding her story has often obscured her oeuvre, but perhaps it is time to see the artist through the looking glass of her own lenses and discover who American photographer Francesca Woodman really was.

 

The Artist: Just Francesca

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Self-Portrait Talking to Vince by Francesca Woodman, 1977, via Vogue

 

Francesca was born into the Woodman’s artistic family in the spring of 1958 in Denver Colorado. Her mother, Betty Woodman, is a ceramicist. Her father, George Woodman, is a painter who later in his career decided to also focus on photography, following his daughter’s media as a way to give continuation to her artworks.

 

She is well-known for her black and white photographic works depicting young women. Often, the most immediate muse was the one in the mirror, which is the reason many of her photography show depictions of herself. 

 

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House #3 by Francesca Woodman, 1976, via Vogue

 

After her annunciated but premature death in 1981, Francesca’s name started to rank among the most celebrated yet enigmatic American photographers in the contemporary art scene. Her figure and artworks are continuously reinterpreted through themes of femininity, otherness, sexuality, and psychological analysis. 

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As a glimpse of the American photographer’s rich but tumultuous inner life, Francesca’s monochromatic depictions portray mainly women as fragmented reflections of the self, but also as whole projections of women’s search for identity through deep introspection and self-consciousness.

 

Francesca Woodman Was Born Into An Artistic Family

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Francesca’s parents, artists Betty and George Woodman, via The New York Times

 

Francesca’s exposure to art started the day she was born. Both of her parents were active artists that taught Francesca and her older brother Charlie, about the value of art in life. At the Woodman’s, art was second nature —the only purposeful and meaningful way to understand life. Her mother, Betty, recalls at the documentary ‘The Woodmans’ how her kids grew up terrified of breaking a vase or any other ceramic piece. Her brother Charlie, who became a video performance artist and professor, can still bring to life memories where he and his sister would avoid interrupting, by all means, the artistic creation process of their parents. As a result, Francesca learned from a very early age to respect and appreciate the almost sacred practice of art-making. 

 

But as it commonly happens in the art world, artistic fate is full of irony, and Francesca’s fame continues to this day to surpass that of her artist parents. Her enormous success is at times overwhelming, even for her family, “[There is a] huge amount of pleasure from her success. We don’t have Francesca, so this is what we have, and we are lucky to have it […], But is not always wonderful. At times it really rubs you the wrong way. I mean, wait a minute, I am an artist too,” Betty says.

  

 

The American Photographer’s Artistic Prowess

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Francesca and her father George Woodman, 1980, via the New York Times; with her Rolleiflex camera

 

Francesca received her first camera as a gift from her dad at the age of 13. Her father, who describes her as a young woman with a ‘provocative nature’ and the skill to organize drama, encouraged her to experiment with the media. She was close to her dad and often sought his artistic advice more than that of her mother’s. The camera was an imitation of the famous Rollei Yashica, with which she took most of her photographic series. During this time, Francesca demonstrated her artistic prowess by capturing some of her most famous ‘blurred’ self-portraits and some isolated silhouettes with gothic-surrealist tints.

 

Francesca Woodman Spent Her Summers In Italy

 

As nice as the idea of spending summers in Italy may sound, Francesca Woodman often resisted it. Her childhood routine became interrupted every summer when her parents embarked on the family’s yearly extended trip to Tuscany. The Woodmans had acquired property in Antella, near Florence, and excused their children from school before the end of every school year. Sometimes, Francesca would show defiance as she would have preferred to complete her studies in time and spend the summer days in Colorado with her friends. However, after wandering at the Florentine museums for countless hours, she grew a new interest in sketching and capturing pictures of women in extremely ornate dresses. 

 

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Untitled from the series Italian Works by Francesca Woodman, 1977-78, via Dazed

 

The Italian Renaissance masterpieces and the elaborate feminine costumes depicted in them would also influence her later interest in fashion photography. It was during these formative years that she also learned the Italian language, which would later prove extremely helpful in her academic and artistic career. 

 

This early exposure to Italian cathedral statuary influenced the American photographer’s Angel series, in which she investigated the temporal suspension effects of photography to depict such figures moving between heaven and earth.

 

In 1975 she moved to Rhode Island to pursue her college education. She was only 17 when in 1977, she decided to attend a summer residency in Rome. There she befriended many other international artists and academics, with whom she was able to connect since she was fluent in the language. 

 

But Francesca was not there for leisure time nor sightseeing. During those years, she was intensely focused on her projects. She was a serious and ambitious young artist that was committed to gaining recognition for her art. Instead of exploring the streets of Rome, she decided to exclusively dedicate her time abroad to capture indoor photographs at her studio. Simultaneously, in 1977 she also orchestrated her first exhibition to take place at the surrealist Libreria Maldoror in Rome. 

 

She Attended One Of The Best Photography Schools

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Untitled Self-Portrait by Francesca Woodman, 1975-76, via Wall Street Journal

 

Between 1975 and 1977 Francesca was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the best photography schools in the world. She graduated with honors after experiencing great academic undergraduate success. Her time abroad in Rome had shaped her perspective and matured her style, but even before that, her classmates recall how Francesca had an almost magnetic but intriguing aura to her. 

 

She introduced herself as ‘Fran-ces-ca,’ pronouncing the word in almost slow-motion. As if the sound of her name could also be captured in her long-exposure photographs and be perpetuated forever. 

 

She had a ‘sophisticated eye’ for composition that her classmates admired. Her artistic ability shined over the rest. Francesca knew she was talented. She recognized herself as an artist who had something to say, a woman with a voice that had to express in images. So clear was her vision that she was a photographer and nothing else that during her early college years, she felt her time was wasted by attending introductory 2D and 3D design courses. For this reason, she always skipped those classes.

 

Her Oeuvre Also Includes Videos and Books

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Some Disordered Interior Geometries by Francesca Woodman, 1980-81, via The Paris Review

 

Francesca was a woman of many talents, and although her photographs are her main legacy, she also created other projects such as short videos and books. Some Disordered Interior Geometries was the title of her one and only artist book. Here, the young artist appropriates an Italian math book to inundate it with her photographs and handwritten annotations. A total of sixteen gelatin silver prints appear suspended over the printed textbook and surrounded by an amalgam of Francesca’s thoughts. A different geometry full of chaos emerges from the interior of these pages. Her logic is so disparate that it results familiar, raw, and real. 

 

To this heading, `Definizioni Preliminari’ (Preliminary Definition), Francesca has added ‘A sort of round. Seeing in the form of a canon.’ Woodman plays with the psyche to transform contexts and modify her environment. She remains visible but creates distance as a way to explore space and time. 

 

The title is not a coincidence; Some Disordered Interior Geometries is indeed an equation to be solved that requires the viewer to dismiss established canonical and ideal concepts in order to decipher it. 

 

Influenced By Surrealism, Conceptualism, And Fashion

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Untitled by Francesca Woodman, 1979-80, via Another Magazine

 

Francesca Woodman was influenced by Surrealism and magic realism. The artist once said, ‘I would like words to have the same relationship with my images as photographs have with the text in André Breton’s Nadja […] To condense the experience into small complete images in which the mystery of fear, or what remains latent in the eyes of the observer would emerge as if were derived from his own experience.’

 

While in Rome and planning her first exhibition at Maldoror bookstore, the American photographer often visited Galleria Ferranti where the works of Italian Conceptual artists were displayed. The influence of Conceptualism in her artwork is visible in her recurring symbolic motifs such as snakes, birds, rivers, trees, mirrors, and skulls. 

 

Fashion also influenced Francesca’s art. She admired fashion photographers Guy Bourdin and Deborah Turbeville, and in 1979 she decided to move to N.Y.C. to pursue a career in the fashion industry. She had an impeccable work ethic and a visionary eye for fashion photography, but she did not seem to fit into the mold. Her images related to the dressed and undressed female body, and as iconic as her aesthetics may appear nowadays, they were mostly rejected at the time. 

 

Francesca’s imagery resulted too refined for the fashion industry yet too gothic and desperate for the art scene. Her disappointment grew into frustration after several unsuccessful attempts to fit into the fashion industry and the N.Y.C art scene. 

 

The Proto-Selfie Queen

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On Being an Angel #1 by Francesca Woodman, 1977, via e-flux

 

In case you haven’t noticed by now, Francesca Woodman loved selfies. To the point that her parents were once concerned about their daughter facing a ‘self-preoccupation’ issue because her depictions were ‘excessive.’

 

It can be argued that in art, all creation is autobiographical. Francesca’s body of photographs are reigned by her body and her face. The photographer becomes the muse. Many of her self-portraits are imbued with a magical quality that is enhanced by her long exposures and variations of gray. In each, Francesca embodies exalted emotions that go from mental and emotional longing to sensorial ecstasy.

 

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Untitled by Francesca Woodman, 1976, via The Paris Review

 

However, is not that Francesca wasn’t interested in photographing others, in fact, she did capture many varied subjects. Her interest in using her body as her main subject was based on different reasons that expand much beyond vanity; not as a way to enhance or represent her looks, but her ideas. She used her body as a medium to interact and explore both, her interior and her surroundings. 

 

Frida Kahlo once said, ‘I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.’ This immediacy and level of intimacy that one beholds with oneself made Francesca use her face, body, and psyche as her main subject. In this way, she could at least ensure a truthful and accurate portrayal of the energy and emotions she sought to depict in her pictures. In a sense, Francesca’s face and body became psychological and artistic tools to carry her message.  When questioned why she depicted herself obsessively in her works, she said, ‘It is a matter of convenience, I am always available.’

 

She Intentionally Blurred Her Photographs To Create Movement

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Untitled from Angels Series by Francesca Woodman, 1977, via Vogue 

 

Francesca Woodman knew that abstraction could often reveal more than clear pictures. Her imagery appears blurred by design. Her compositions at times may seem performative due to their sense of movement because despite these being still images, they undeniably capture a physical motion and emotional rapture. 

 

Either through movement or layers, the American photographer often hides the subject’s face to create impactful and poetic imagery. Her compositions, despite being in black and white, do not rely on high contrasts to create interest, in fact, the image is often revealed in a balmy or grainy gradient that is enhanced by soft light and subtle tonality variations. 

 

Through her sequential images, Francesca engages in a dialogue of female nature, melancholy, and introspection. The tenderness and organic form of the female body are contrasted with the rigidity of geometric objects in her environment. It is the body that moves and dominates the space, but also, what is free to break away from those surroundings elevating itself to other realms. 

 

Am I in the picture? Am I getting in or out of it? I could be a ghost, an animal or a dead body, not just this girl standing on the corner…?

– Francesca Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman Was… A Feminist?

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Eel Series by Francesca Woodman, 1978, via Tate, London

 

Francesca Woodman’s photographic works have often been linked to the feminist movement. Some readings have interpreted the artist’s reappropriations of classical iconography as a visual representation of feminist ideas. Under this perspective, Francesca’s reclaim of the nude female body that was always blurred or half-hidden in an eternal attempt to escape its immediate reality was useful for the deconstruction of the male gaze. 

 

Such views continue to be a matter of study and debate nowadays. Feminist critic Rosalind Krauss wrote a much-critiqued essay for the catalog of Francesca’s first -and posthumous- solo exhibition, in which she identified feminist elements in her photographs. Krauss’s writing imbued Francesca’s art with impressive cultural capital under the feminist lenses, but arguably also canonized her image as a young suicidal artist, and one more of the amateur and victimized females in the pantheon of art history.

 

Others disagree with feminist theorizations of Francesca’s works, as artist Cindy Sherman, ‘I think Francesca would scoff at being called a feminist artist. She used herself organically, not to make a statement.’ 

 

Much Of Her Work Is Still Unpublished

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Space 2 by Francesca Woodman, 1976, via The Paris Review

 

Much of Francesca Woodman’s art still remains unpublished and guarded in private family archives by the Woodmans. It is estimated that her final oeuvre created from the age of thirteen to twenty-two is composed of over 10,000 negatives. From those, only 800 were printed by the artist, of which only about 120 have been released by the Woodman Estate and made accessible to the public.

 

She Suffered Depression

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Untitled by Francesca Woodman, 1977-78, via Plain Magazine

 

In 1980, Francesca Woodman became an artist in residence at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New, Hampshire. The decision was partially influenced by the many rejections of her portfolio submissions to fashion companies and unsuccessful attempts to pursue a career as a photographer in N.Y.C. 

 

By late 1980, her artistic pursuits and the failure of her work to attract attention had left Francesca discouraged and demoralized. She was so distressed during this time that she even stopped taking pictures. As a result, she underwent a fatal depression, also kindled by a troubled relationship with her lover. That same autumn, the sense of total loss of control and meaning led her to attempt against her life. Luckily, she was found in time for her life to be rescued.

 

But Francesca Wasn’t A Tormented Person

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Francesca Woodman by George Lange, via cartierbressonnoesunreloj.com

 

It is important to mention that the figure of Francesca Woodman has been often obscured by her story. Her personality was not gloomy or lethargic at all. She was determined and intense in all her relationships: with her family, her friends, her lover, her art, and ultimately, with herself. She was not a dreamy girl, but a woman with clear ideas that she knew how to execute and bring to fruition. But the world did not seem to be ready for her avant-garde eye and voice. 

 

Those who knew Francesca, remember her as a pleasant person to be around with magnetic energy. Her friend Betsy Berne says she was, ‘The kind of person you either loved or hated. She had a great sense of humor.’ Her mother, Betty affirms that ‘Her life wasn’t a series of miseries, she was fun to be with.’ George, her dad recalls how ‘She was a lively conversationalist. Irony and comic characterization of other people were part of her speech.’ 

 

In her brother’s words, ‘When you look at the images you see how thoughtful she was. There is a lot of humor, and I think there is a lot of magic in her work. Francesca as a person was deliberate, considerate, and enterprised. She had a lively imagination.’ 

 

Francesca Woodman Committed Suicide At 22

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Untitled by Francesca Woodman, 1976, via the New York Times

 

She survived the 1980 suicidal attempt, but on January 19th of 1981, Francesca Woodman embraced her last disappearing act away from the camera. She took her life by jumping out of a window in N.Y.C. at only twenty-two. Some interpret her pictures as a foreshadowing of her death, if this is true, that day Francesca had finally escaped the picture frame only to begin her eternal departure. Her presence, her long-exposed journeys in front of and behind the camera, together with her handwritten inscriptions seem to be more alive than ever.

 

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Francesca Woodman in her studio photographed by George Lange, ca. 1975-78, via Boulder Weekly 

 

Nowadays, recognized as a contemporary icon, a new interest in discovering who Francesca Woodman really was has undoubtedly emerged. Her relentless search for the inner self rejects any clear or definitive answers. 

 

Perhaps, as a first step to demythologize Francesca Woodman, we could begin by shedding biographies of any kind. Call her by her name. One’s own. Francesca. Secondly, we could start by actually seeing her images to engage in profound dialogue with them in order to find the place of invention that allowed her to imagine and create such tiny images of huge intimacy. And finally, to strip ourselves of any other labels that may limit the river of ideas that Francesca unleashed, to then finally find her. Just Fran-ces-ca. 

 

‘I have parameters and my life at this point is similar to the sediments of an old cup of coffee, and I would rather die young, preserving what has been done, instead of confusedly rubbing out all these delicate things.’ – Francesca Woodman



Author Image

By Carolina SanmiguelBased in Barcelona, Carolina is an American contributing writer who focuses on current trends in global art. She explores the influence of Classical Antiquity on the contemporary art scene while looking at the impact of historic aesthetic models on visual culture. She holds a B.A. in Art Education from The University of Texas and an M.A. in Art History and Theory from The University of Barcelona. Carolina has international experience in art education, curriculum design, and varied museum roles in places like the MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona).