Presence, Or Absence?
We must consent and commend her ambiguity, for it is the fragmented nature of her narrative that feeds our curiosity and makes her art so exceptional.
Francesca Woodman’s body of work, comprising 500 or so small-scale, square-format monochrome photographs, was created in only eight years, from 1972-1981, but despite the brevity of her career she is now recognised as one of the most influential American photographers of the late twentieth century. The daughter of two artists, she was exposed to art from an early age, beginning her photography career with a peculiarly precocious self-portrait aged thirteen, and continuing in that vein until her suicide in New York aged twenty-two.
Since then her self-portraits have been picked apart, examined for clues of her enigmatic character, but more often than not her meanings and intentions remain a mystery. Engrossed with the relationship between the human body and space, childhood and adulthood, Woodman captures the transient transformation of body to object and girl to woman. She grew up in a generation of feminist artists who aimed to use their art, and often by extension their bodies, for political purpose, and although Woodman’s work subtly addresses many of the modern issues that concerned her colleagues in the nineteen seventies, it is also true that her colourless, fragile images seem out of her time and indeed timeless.
Their apparent fragility, coupled no doubt with the knowledge of her early death, has caused some academics to tell of her inner despair, though Woodman’s art conveys a diversity of feeling and thought. Piecing together the fragments of these various expressions of feeling will illuminate Woodman’s embodiment of absence or presence, eroticism or purity, and feminism or impartiality.
Although Woodman has now been physically absent for nearly thirty-five years, one can still sense her presence in the images that she has left behind and also her presence in our own times through the continuing relevance of her work. Her life may have been merely a fragment, cut tragically short, but she has an extraordinary legacy. The timelessness of her images is what keeps Woodman present, and so she lives on, embodying every element of the spaces in which her photos are set. Woodman’s true character remains a mystery, she is a woman who can be interpreted as appearing or disappearing, provocative or pure, jovial or desolate, sophisticated or naïve, light-hearted or grave. This diversity in understanding is what makes her photographs so thought provoking.
Above all, it is important to recognise her as a unique human being, capable of many passions, rather than to merely identify her work as a foretelling of her death. Steinhauer has asked:
‘Her art and her life have become inextricably linked. You can’t have the photos without the suicide, and quite probably, you wouldn’t have had the suicide without the photos. But in the equation, the photos get lost, subsumed by a story they weren’t meant to tell. Is there a way to pull the two pieces of her legacy apart?
To answer Steinhauer’s question, there is a way, and this is to accept Woodman as a young woman, dwelling in the difficult brink between childhood and adulthood. She was a woman who, through her self-portraits, expressed the possibility of a thousand different emotions. We must consent and commend her ambiguity, for it is the fragmented nature of her narrative that feeds our curiosity and makes her art so exceptional.