Reevaluating Francesca Woodman, Whose Early Death Haunts Her Groundbreaking Images

Julia Fiore
Aug 22, 2018 7:55PM

What do we really know about the late artist Francesca Woodman? Though she’s recognized as a preternaturally talented photographer, her suicide, at age 22 in 1981, has largely colored the reception of her work. While Woodman left behind a prolific and startlingly complex body of photographs—among those 10,000 negatives and over 800 prints—only a fraction have ever been published or exhibited. We have the journals she kept, too. And then there are her parents, artists George and Betty Woodman (the latter died in early 2018), who dedicated much of their lives as stewards of their daughter’s legacy.

But without the artist present, conflicting narratives emerge. Did Woodman’s dreamy, erotic, body- and soul-baring self-portraits prefigure her death? Or were they largely unrelated? Was she a conceptual feminist or more concerned with formal experimentation? And, crucially, does her virtuosic output represent only the seeds of even greater, more developed works that would never be?

These unanswered questions have fueled, in part, the posthumous fascination with Woodman’s life and work. Largely unknown during her lifetime, her photographs were first introduced to the public at a Wellesley College exhibition in 1986, five years after her death. The show drew a great deal of attention; American critic Rosalind Krauss, who saw Woodman’s photographs as an attempt to resist the male gaze, became her champion. Major traveling retrospectives followed, most recently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from 2011 to 2012. A documentary about her family, The Woodmans (directed by C. Scott Willis), was released in 2010, and around the same time, many catalogues were published on the artist.


Considering that most of her output was created while still a student, Woodman’s reputation is astonishing. The words “haunting,” “ethereal,” and “ghostly” are often used to describe her photographs, but the images present a young artist who was full of life and ideas, exploring her identity, artistic capabilities, and chosen medium with gusto.

Her largely black-and-white photographs—self-portraits and explorations of the female body—have inspired feminist readings that situate Woodman alongside 1970s contemporaries such as Ana Mendieta and Hannah Wilke, and foreshadowed the work of artists like Cindy Sherman (a self-professed fan), Sarah Lucas, and Nan Goldin (though Woodman’s work is not primarily sexual). She is considered by some to be the last of the great modernist photographers, a natural successor to Man Ray and the Surrealists.

So, who was Francesca Woodman?

Born in 1958 in Boulder, Colorado, to a family of artists, Woodman began photographing as a teenager. It was her father George, a painter and photographer, who gave Woodman her first camera, the same 2.25-inch-by-2.25-inch Yashica she would use for most of her career. Along with her older brother Charles (himself a video artist), Woodman was raised with a strong work ethic and the idea that art was “serious business,” her father says in The Woodmans.

From an early age, Woodman developed what would become her signature subject: herself in relation to space. At age 13, she took her first self-portrait. One early work, Untitled (Francesca in High School, with Bonnet) (1972–75), shows the artist in a mountainous forest, a setting and composition akin to sublime romantic paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. Young Woodman stands in profile, looking dreamily out of the frame, a slight smile playing on her lips. She appears almost as a cliché of innocent girlhood, the sheerness of her white cotton dress seemingly unnoticed as she demurely plays with the ties on her bonnet.

The family spent summers in Italy, where Woodman explored museums and became engrossed by relics in the natural history museum and paintings of women in formal clothing. She filled sketchbooks with drawings and started keeping a journal. At boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts, Woodman took photography classes, where she began to explore ideas that appear in her later work. In one image produced during her school days, Woodman tramped through a local forest, capturing herself crawling nude through the trees.

By the time she enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1975, Woodman was already a sophisticated artist with a remarkably mature and focused approach to her work. One classmate recalls in the documentary that the precocious Woodman exuded a “rock star quality.”

Her work from this period questions broader concepts of the self, gender, body image, corporality, and identity. Asked why she photographed herself so obsessively, Woodman said: “It’s a matter of convenience—I am always available.”

Yet a striking aspect of her work is that her nakedness is either explicit or, by contrast, attempts to hide her body. In From Space2, Providence, Rhode Island (1976), the artist stands nude before a wall with crumbling paint, holding one torn strip of wallpaper before her face and breasts, another over her genitals. Even when other people feature in Woodman’s photographs, they function as stand-ins for the artist. In the 1976 photograph About Being My Model, Providence, Rhode Island, three nude female subjects are portrayed with their faces obscured by headshots of Woodman, leaving the viewer wondering if the artist is, in fact, present in the image.

Many formal techniques that Woodman experimented with also serve to mystify the artist. Employing long exposures, slow shutter speeds, and surrealistic compositions, she took scores of photographs where figures appear blurred, their disintegrating forms evoking 19th-century Gothic revivalists. Woodman referred to these images as “ghost pictures,” though most historians now describe them as “Angels,” in reference to the title of one of her best-known bodies of work.

“The theme of the angel is as a figure that is there and also not there, because it is not human,” Kim Knoppers, who curated the iteration of the traveling retrospective “Francesca Woodman: On Being an Angel,”at the Foam Fotografiemuseum, said in an interview. “She is, somehow, always in-between—and this in-between is very important. Woodman’s photographs are about appearance and disappearance.” With referents like these, it’s no wonder that Woodman’s work is often perceived in light of her death.

Woodman spent her junior year of college in Rome, where she frequently visited the Libreria Maldoror, a bookshop and gallery that specialized in work about and by the Surrealists (and which later hosted her first small show). During this period, Woodman made use of Surrealist motifs like mirrors, birds, fish, masks, and gloves, and arranged the objects in her sparse tableaux so deliberately that the slightest change would alter their meaning.

Untitled, Rome, Italy (1977–78) has become one of Woodman’s most iconic photographs. She appears almost Christlike here. Wearing only a white petticoat, the artist awkwardly suspends herself from a doorway by her arms. For such an exposed position, why does she hide her face behind her arm? As in all of Woodman’s images, she seems at once vulnerable but self-possessed, the scene impromptu yet carefully constructed.

But Woodman was also undoubtedly forward-thinking. She experimented with video, a relatively new medium at the time, and some pieces reveal that she took apparent pleasure in her work. In one video, the viewer watches Woodman meticulously set up and shoot the 1976 photograph Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island. We see the artist sit beside a black silhouette of her body marked onto a white-dusted floor. At the end, offscreen, Woodman declares: “Oh, I’m really pleased!”

After graduating from RISD, Woodman moved to New York, but struggled to find success and earn a living. She took on short-term jobs as a secretary, a photographer’s assistant, and a model. A superstar in school, Woodman’s family and friends have noted that she began to struggle with depression in the postgraduate wilderness. In the late 1970s, photography was not the medium in vogue, and her work failed to attract attention. She had sent her portfolio of self-portraits, as well as efforts in fashion photography, to all the important New York culture magazines, who ignored her (though her sensual aesthetic later become an industry standard). Around this same time, the National Endowment for the Arts rejected her grant application.

In the fall of 1980, Woodman attempted suicide, but survived. She received psychiatric treatment and moved in with her parents, who had relocated to New York to advance their own careers.

Having artists for parents, one friend explains in The Woodmans, made success seem critical for the young artist. She told her father that it was necessary for her to make at least one career-related phone call every day. Woodman was obsessed with crafting a public image, even writing parts of her journal as though it would be published one day as a memoir. (She mentions having shown the journal to a friend in one 1975 entry, writing: “Does it read as a book one wonders.”)

An acquaintance wrote of her death: “Things had been bad, there had been therapy, things had gotten better, guard had been let down.” Only a year later, on January 19, 1981, following the end of a romantic relationship, Woodman jumped to her death from the window of a building on the Lower East Side.

In a letter to her best friend shortly before she died, Woodman wrote: “My life at this point is like very old coffee-cup sediment and I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, i.e. some work, my friendship with you, some other artefacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things.”

We will never know how Francesca Woodman’s work might have developed. But the prolific body of photographs that she left behind, though fully realized, speaks to a young artist finding her way. In turn, Woodman laid the foundation for women to self-inquire by turning the camera on themselves.

“This action that I foresee has nothing to do with melodrama,” she wrote in her final journal entry. “I was (am?) not unique but special. This is why I was an artist…I was inventing a language for people to see the everyday things that I also see…and show them something different…Nothing to do with not being able ‘to take it’ in the big city or w/ self doubt or because my heart is gone. And not to teach people a lesson. Simply the other side.”  

Woodman upended the conventions of life, art, and death: In her photographs, she tried to both “erase” and define herself; in death, she crystallized and ensured her legacy.

Julia Fiore

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that only 120 of Francesca Woodman’s works have ever been published or exhibited. We can no longer corroborate this number.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019