Monday, February 18, 2013

Authors on Artists: Letitia Trent on Francesca Woodman

Four Things about Francesca Woodman
by Letitia Trent

1.       Francesca Woodman is the First Photographer I Knew by Name

Francesca Woodman died in 1981, at the age of 22, by jumping out of a window.  

I wish that this wasn’t the first thing that most people know about Francesca Woodman. Knowing her end means that we search her images for traces of that end everywhere—her blurry body parts are not simply blurry body parts, but hints at her unrecognizable face post-death. Hints of her desire to erase herself. Dying young and by your own hand means that everything you did before that death—even if the death might have been in a fever of self-loathing, a momentary burst of despair immediately regretted as soon as the act became irreversible—is combed for clues, as if you’d always been planning it with every word or diary entry or photograph. Maybe she was. Maybe she wasn’t. Is this a useful way to read the work of any artist? Is it even possible to avoid reading her work this way?

I first saw Woodman’s work in 1999, when I was 18 years old, without the context of the end of her life. I probably did a Yahoo search for “female photographers” or saw her linked on a livejournal page.

When I first saw her work, I had two reactions: I instantly loved her photographs and I knew that we were both obsessed with death. 

2.       Ghosts and Angels

Woodman’s most famous photographs are self-portraits, many of which seem to be about death, or at least the spectral. One set, called “The Angel Series”, features a photograph with two plastic sheets suspended in the air like wings, and Woodman, naked from the waist-up, jumping as though trying to reach them.

In another series, she poses in a decrepit apartment building, the wallpaper peeling to reveal the wall beneath. Her interiors are bleak, haunted places, full of broken objects.

In several of Woodman’s photographs, she is obscured by strips of wallpaper, hidden behind great sheets of it, and pressed against the peeling and dirty walls. Sometimes it seems like her body is trying to sink into the walls of the building, while in others, she is trying to make the body yet another object, and in others, that she is making herself a ghost, a blurry object in the background, caught by accident behind the focal point of the composition. 

In other photographs, her body or the bodies of her models are alarmingly real and confront the camera. In some pictures (rarely, but it’s shocking when it happens), her face is clearly turned toward the camera, often bearing a look of slight amusement or surprise or what seems to be mock seriousness.

3.       Things I Don’t Want to Think About the Way I Think About Francesca Woodman:

It’s almost embarrassing to like Francesca Woodman because she is sometimes called a photographer “for women” and “about women” or “about female identity”, much like Sylvia Plath is often thought of as a “women’s poet”, and it’s sometimes embarrassing to have the mark of Plath on your poems as it is embarrassing to have the mark of Woodman on your photography. Why is it embarrassing? Embarrassing because both women kept journals (a thing often dismissed as “girly” to do, when done by a woman) and both were interested in the physicality of the body and the gothic decay of the body/home and both killed themselves at a young age and both have been dismissed as navel-gazers who used their threats of suicide and their beauty as a way to get attention and (this is really a claim—read any comment thread on an article about Woodman or Plath and see) that they both died to advance their careers.  

It’s embarrassing to be embarrassed about liking things “for women” or “about female identity” because one then realizes how deeply ingrained embarrassment about the female body/art is and, I will begin to say “I” now, it’s embarrassing how sometimes I want somebody to assure me that Woodman actually was the genius I think she is and not a self-obsessed chronicler of her own culturally agreed-upon beautiful body displayed in pieces and blurs or a “kitschy throwback” according to the New York Times or a talented girl who earned her fame partly by throwing herself from a building when she was still beautiful enough for anyone to care.

I would like to read a review of Woodman that does not say or even imply even one of the following ideas: She was talented, but not original. She was clearly a serious artist, but too self-obsessed and narrow. She had a unique vision, but that vision matters mostly because she is dead.

4.       I wanted to be Francesca Woodman

I got my first digital camera in 2000, and the first thing I did with it was create self-portraits in the hot, crowded, ugly rooms of my small apartment. I wore garage sale dresses with rips and unworkable zippers and posed under the table, in corners, on the dirty floor, usually mid-movement. I had an obsessive desire to capture myself in ways that both obscured and highlighted my physical body—I wanted to be there, but not be there. I had learned this from fashion photography, from literature, from Edgar Allen Poe, who said the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical topic in the world, and so my pictures had an element of erasure, of blurring, of the body disappearing, of death. Somehow, taking a picture of myself in one moment in time felt like performing a kind of death, but I did not understand why, and I wanted to figure it out visually.

Of course, I had also learned this from Francesca Woodman.

Woodman’s use of her own body as an object of inquiry and her staged compositions in crumbling interiors are the easiest surface elements of her work to imitate, but less easy to duplicate are her irony, her interest in looking deeply at how we create identity through reflection and imitation, and her ability to translate internal states into images. I was never very good at it, so I gave it up. I didn’t have the obsessive need that Woodman seemed to have, a need that made her take thousands of meticulously staged, inventive photographs over a period of less than seven years. I also didn’t have the talent.

In one famous image, her photocopied face is held before the faces of three naked women— 

—is Francesca Woodman really in the picture at all? And what does it mean to be in a photograph anyway, to be rendered a flat object amongst other objects? Throughout Woodman’s photographs, there is a thread of obsessive examination and inquiry into exactly what a body is, how we identify a person in a photograph, and what a person is at all anyway, if a person can be both the creator of an image and the representation inside of it.  


Letitia Trent's work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, The Black Warrior Review, Fence, Folio, The Journal, Mipoesias, Ootoliths, Blazevox, and many others. Her books include the full-length collection One Perfect Bird and the chapbooks "You aren't in this movie" (dancing girl press), Splice (Blue Hour Press) and The Medical Diaries (Scantily Clad Press). She was the 2010 winner of the Alumni Flash Writing Award from the Ohio State University's The Journal and has been awarded fellowships from The Vermont Studio Center and the MacDowell Colony.