Photographing Female Identity In The 1970s

I remember the first time I came across a Francesca Woodman photograph. It was of a naked figure – hers, it turned out – crumpled up on the floor, seemingly trying to disappear into the crumbling wall behind her. I was fascinated by the mysterious woman in the picture. She seemed so raw, so vulnerable, so forlorn. In short, how we’ve all felt at one time or another.
I was 21, just one year younger, I learned later, than Woodman was when she killed herself by jumping from a Manhattan building in 1981.
Woodman was born to a family of artists in Boulder, Colorado. She started taking photographs in her teens, before studying at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1975 to 1978. The rest of her short life was spent living and working in New York.
At the time of her death, she was a virtual unknown, and had just been turned down for a grant. There has been speculation that this, along with a failed relationship, contributed to her depression, and eventual suicide.
Her self-portraits, mostly in black and white, were rediscovered in the mid-1980s. Of 800 known images she took, only a quarter have been made available to the public. Yet she is now regarded as one of the most important names in contemporary photography, influencing the likes of Cindy Sherman. If her work seems unoriginal in any way, it is only because it has been endlessly copied.
Kim Knoppers, curator at Foam museum in Amsterdam where Woodman' work will be exhibited this month, feels her work remains pertinent today.
“The work is still very fresh because it is relevant to what is happening in photography now. There are many young photographers using their bodies in a performitive way today, putting themselves in the picture, and exploring gender just as Francesca Woodman once did. That is why I was very interested in showing this work right now.”
When her photographs were first exhibited to the public, at a Wellesley College exhibition in 1986, five years after her death, the public found it impossible to separate her work from her tragic life story. Indeed, it is what intrigues many people still.
And you can see why it can be so hard to disassociate the two. Her faceless nudes, often camouflaged, can remind us of ghosts, as if she had already placed one foot in the afterlife. The buildings around her are falling down; everything is in ruins.
“Woodman was an artist with an interest in her own body and gender,” says Knoppers, “but whose work also has a dark edge. It’s a bit gloomy, a bit gothic, with a romantic twist.”
We can read into her work what we like, but when asked why she always photographed herself, Woodman simply said, “It’s a matter of convenience; I am always available.”
Her parents, who still look after her estate, urge viewers to delve deeper into the photographs, to look beyond the myth, and find the humour, femininity and surrealism. Here we offer a selection of some of her finest pieces.
They are complicated images. Much like Woodman herself.

Francesca Woodman: On Being An Angel is at Foam museum, Amsterdam, from 18 December to 9 March 2016

All images © Betty and George Woodman

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