Between Introspection and Surrealism: the Photography of Francesca Woodman

by Asia Leopardi

One day in 1977, a young girl entered the “Maldoror” art gallery in Rome, handed the owner a gray box and exclaimed: “I’m a photographer!” She is not yet twenty and her name is Francesca Woodman.

Born in Denver in April 1958, Francesca was the daughter of a potter and a painter. Her father George initiated her into photography, giving her a camera he never used, and which he would return to after his daughter’s premature death in 1983.

“We were all artists, and all our friends were artists themselves,” says George Woodman in an interview. “It was therefore something normal for Francesca. But she didn’t try what we already did. She immediately went her way.” He gave to her that camera when Francesca was only 13 years old and was about to start her first art school – more or less the age in which today you get your first smartphone, but at that time starting to photograph so early meant being very precocious, even for a daughter of Art.

Her first self-portrait dates to 1972 (“Self-portrait at 13,” Boulder, Colorado), a square shot, in a soft blackened white and set indoors, in which emerges a strong relationship of the body of the subject against the surrounding space, thanks to the play of perspectives. As in selfies you can often see the arm of someone holding a smartphone or a camera to shoot, here you see — and occupies half the scene — the wire that connects the camera to the self-timer button. Francesca’s face is partially hidden by her hair, in a play of the visible with the hidden that will continue to captivate her throughout most of her future experiments. This work inaugurates all of her considerable production with precise rules, even if only a small part of these are known. Incredibly prolific, Francesca Woodman in the only eight years in which she worked with photography produced ten thousand negatives and 800 prints before taking her own life. Only about a hundred of these images have been published and exhibited.

Francesca Woodman used herself and various objects, even symbolic ones, to explore themes concerning the adolescence she was going through: the question of identity and body image, relationships and sexuality, alienation, and isolation. “It’s a question of convenience, I’m always available” the photographer replied lightly with a touch of irony to those who asked why she always chose to be the subject of her photos.

To find answers about her identity, Francesca Woodman often strips, literally, and naturally photographs her naked body, which is ever-changing as she progresses through adolescence to adulthood, and which is never quite resolved, often hidden behind furniture and objects, wallpaper, plants mirrors. This staging of the nude never comes across as with sexual intent, but more functional in the exploration of the relationship of full and empty in space, between the presence and the absence of the body and the status of the self, which is both subject and object, conscious, explorable, purely material, beyond any transcendence. There is no intent of celebration, but a desire for communion with the world and with nature that is accomplished in transfiguring oneself and becoming a work of art.

Francesca experimented not just in composition, but also, on a more technical level, with the long exposure modes of the camera, seen as a tool for making possible one’s presence in the negative, capturing movement, creating ghosts, a mysterious atmosphere, and playing with time, challenging its limits: even if the photographs were taken by her during the 70s, thanks to the settings, between abandoned interiors and peeling walls, and to the timeless clothes, which could belong to other eras, to her taste for the image and black and white, they seem placed in an atemporal moment, suspended between past and present.

In 1975 Francesca Woodman attended and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD): her career had already begun and her self-taught training already advanced, and here she was able to stand out among her classmates, recognized by all as a sort of natural star with a more than a promising future. After graduation, she moved to New York with the desire to prove herself, and launch her career, but providing for herself and getting recognition turned out to be difficult for her. She held various jobs, from secretary to assistant to photographers, to model, while sending her portfolio of self-portraits to galleries and fashion magazines in the hope of being published. However, the positive feedback was slow to arrive, thanks to the loss of attention for the photographic medium towards the end of the 70’s, and the fierce competition common in a big city like New York, where too many tried to make their dreams come true.

This precariousness and the difficulty in establishing herself, after the school years in which her precocious talent was recognized and exalted by everyone, slowly led her to depression, until the National Endowment for the Arts — a U.S. federal agency that offers support to the most promising artistic projects — refused her request to obtain funds and in the autumn of 1980, Francesca attempted suicide for the first time, without success. “I have standards,” she wrote a few weeks later to a former classmate in Rhode Island, “and my life, at this point, is like an old coffee ground, and I’d rather die young, leaving behind a series of succeeding works, some jobs, my friendship with you and others … intact, instead of letting these delicate things vanish”.

The great hopes, combined with the impatience of youth, made the rejections received in the New York years unbearable and a few months later, in January 1981, Francesca took her life at the age of 22. Although Woodman’s self-portraits are not narcissistic products, the artist’s ultimate goal obviously could only be to live off her art, to be recognized, a feat in which her parents had succeeded before her. “She was much more sophisticated than a lot of us,” says Betsy Berge, her friend, journalist, and writer. “She was 21 and many were jealous of her talent. When you are twenty, everything seems very urgent. You think you have to achieve fame in 20 seconds, especially in her case, having started to do a really good job since she was 14. There was a lot of pressure on her”. The recognition she sought came shortly after, posthumously: the first exhibition was organized by Ann Gabhart, director of the Wellesley College Museum, in 1986, followed by a critical text by Rosalind Krauss and Abigail Solomon-Godeau. Immediately after, her work began traveling the United States, arriving in Europe in the early 1990s. Without being able to witness it, with her self-portraits, which we take so much for granted today, and the obsessive research of the self that belongs to everyone in the years in which one becomes an adult, Francesca Woodman has managed to change the history of photography.

Homepage: https://carlkruse.net

For another take on Francesca Woodman, see a review of “The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman.”

The blog’s earlier snippet on Jack Delano is here.

Contact: CARL at CARLKRUSE dot ORG

At Play With National Geographic’s YOUR SHOT

YOUR SHOT On National Geographic

by Carl Kruse

UPDATE:  7 November 2019:

As of 31 October 2019, National Geographic has sadly closed the YOUR SHOT section of its site.   This post remains for historical reasons.  There are fortunately many other sites online to share images. We recommend FSTOPPERS and 500px.  Both sites have high quality contributors and good editors.  We give perhaps the nod to Fstoppers, which also has excellent tutorials, articles, reviews and top notch community discussion rooms.  That is where I am active.   If  you check out the site, stop by and say hello.  You can find me at Carl Kruse on Fstoppers.  Keep doing good art and being kind to each other.

Carl Kruse

ORIGINAL POST:

Among the many sites to share images online — Instagram, 500px, Pinterest, Fstoppers, Snapchat – one of the best is National Geographic’s “Your Shot,” a place where amateurs and professionals gather. A feast for the eyes and often, soul.

Some of what happens on “Your Shot” finds its way to the fabled pages of National Geographic, making YOUR SHOT a catapult for aspiring artists vying for the attention of a larger stage.

Of special interest is the “Daily Dozen” where magazine editors select their 12 favorite images from the thousands uploaded daily. Most of these are  fantastic voyages in of themselves, a respite from the travails of daily life. Much goodness there.

For fun I’ve taken to posting some of my own iPhone images to strut  along the Canon 5D and Nikon 4DS images of the world-class. While superior cameras make it easier to create beautiful images, it is ultimately technique and the artistic eye that make way for magic on YOUR SHOT, so even those with lowly smartphones have a chance to run for the money.

Examples of iphone photos I have posted on “Your Shot” include:

Carl Kruse NYE Miami

Street Art Berlin, Germany

carl kruse meki image

More Street Art in Berlin, Germany

Others include:

http://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/photos/10142571/

http://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/photos/9974413/

http://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/photos/10001003/

(All photos copyright:  Carl Kruse).

Surely, you can do as well, probably better.

Photographers retain full copyright of their photos, so all cool for those worried the big bad magazine will abscond with your work.  By the way, all images on this site are (natch) copyright Carl Kruse.

Check out what’s happening, and if you do, say hello.

On YOUR SHOT I’m at

http://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/profile/1247970/

My National Geographic profile is

https://membercenter.nationalgeographic.com/108927222984/

Keep doing goodness.

Carl Kruse

Reach out to me by email:      info AT carlkruse DOT net.

P.S. For another wonderful photographer, check out my earlier post on Jack Delano:  Carl Kruse Talks About Jack Delano.

P.P.S.  For my other blog check out the Carl Kruse Blog.

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Jack Delano- Experiments in Light Photography

Some time in the early 1990s I came across Jack Delano’s work in a photography book titled “Puerto Rico Mio: Four Decades of Change.” Here Mr. Delano compared images from his first visit to the island in the 1940s with those he later made of the same sites 40 years later.  Delano had first traveled to Puerto Rico in 1941 while working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and in 1946, after his service with the U.S Army Air Forces, he returned, having received a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph the island.

Coming of age in the 1970s-early 1980s in Puerto Rico as I did,  was to witness socioeconomic changes that saw my grandmother raised in a shack yet found me in a first-world college prep school with eyes set on the Ivy League. Delano’s images are stirring and magnificent, capturing a people and place in deep flux.  I highly recommend his photo book on Puerto Rico  if you can find it.

Delving further into his work I noticed he had experimented with light photography  / light painting with long exposure shots using mostly natural light for effect.  Many of these images are well known but they were a surprising treat for me.

kruse-delano“Chicago Railyards,” Jack Delano, 1942

carlkruse-delano

“Chicago Union Station,” Jack Delano, 1943

Carl Kruse uses both images from the public domain — photographs from the U.S. Farm Security Admin., which employed Jack Delano in the early 1940s.

I invite everyone to learn more about Jack Delano, a photographer of his time, and beyond.

Carl Kruse

Contact:  info AT carlkruse DOT net