Published on June 15th, 2017 | by Magda Michalska
Isolation, Death, Femininity in Francesca Woodman’s Photographs
This is going to be a story of beauty, depression and an underappreciated genius which untimely came to an end. Brace yourselves for an unhappy ending and the black-and-white world of Francesca Woodman’s photographs.
Francesca was born in Colorado in 1958 to parents who were both artists. The family usually spent summers on an old farm in Tuscany, Italy and Francesca spent there a year attending school. She became interested in photography as a teenager and decided to attend studies at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, Rhode Island. She spoke fluent Italian and went for an exchange to Rome in 1975.
Having graduated, she moved to New York in 1979 in order to, as she said, “make a career in photography.” She sent the photographs she had taken at university (the ones you can see here) all over the city but her portfolios met with lack of any interest. Woodman started to feel depressed, all the more so that she had broken up with her boyfriend. She made a first suicide attempt in 1980 but she was saved.
After the attempt Francesca moved into her parents. She attended a therapy and things seemed to have got better. Not for long, however. On January 19, 1981, she tried the second time and succeeded. She jumped out of a loft window of a building on the East Side of New York. Her father claimed that his daughter’s suicide was related to unsuccessful applications for funding.
An old drug store
Francesca Woodman’s photographs have always had a disquieting feel to them. The shabby interiors of a former dry goods store where she set up a studio and living space, or frequently visited nearby abandoned houses and other rundown spaces, created an ‘out of time’ atmosphere and a striking contrast to the young, smooth and very ‘alive’ female bodies she photographed.
A woman alone
Usually, she used herself as model (“I’m always available” she used to say), but in the majority of the self-portraits her face or body were obscured, veiled, or distorted so that she never really showed herself. The art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto has noted: The difference is that she always shows herself as the same character – the character of a young woman in various mise-en-scenes. I feel that this way her photographs find their way to more young women who feel as isolated, lost and underappreciated as herself.