"It's a matter of convenience, I'm always available." This was photographer Francesca Woodman's response when asked why she almost always used herself as her subject. The mysterious Woodman first came to public consciousness five years after her 1981 death, with a show organized by Wellesley College. She started photographing as a teenager when her father gave her a Yashica, her first camera. She made most of her existing work while she was at the Rhode Island School of Art and Design and in the few years she spent in New York after graduation before her suicide at age 23. Come Mar. 16, New York's Guggenheim Museum opens the most comprehensive retrospective of her work to date, showcasing work spanning the entirety of her short life.
Woodman's stunning square-format self-portraits, almost always in black and white with a broad range of grays, have a decidedly gothic tone. Each photograph has been intricately planned out, with close attention paid to the positioning of her body and its relation to symbolic props and strategically placed shadows. She loved to explore decay, as is seen most clearly in her images of old abandoned houses where she would wrap herself in peeling wallpaper or hide behind a broken fireplace.
Jennifer Blessing, the show's organizer and senior curator of photography at the Guggenheim, sat down with A.i.A. to discuss Woodman's affinities with Cindy Sherman, and her lesser-known film work.
BERYL GILOTHWEST What do you think intrigues so many people about Francesca Woodman? How has an artist whose work comes largely from art school become so respected and revered?
JENNIFER BLESSING I think that her work has meant different things to different viewers over time. When people first had the opportunity to see her work in 1986, it seemed like a revelation. There was a lot of interest in the representation of femininity as a masquerade at the time and so I think that it was in that context that the work was first received. This was also the time when Cindy Sherman was working in color photography, so Woodman's black and white had a historical look. It was this idea of recuperating a lost figure. Nowadays, what interests a lot of younger artists is the earnestness of the work and its kind of do-it-yourself quality, the analog aspect of it in the midst of a digital age. Her works have an enduring appeal because they're just arresting, amazing images. I think that one of the things I've found, and what explains the enduring interest in her work, is that their richness and complexity offer many opportunities for varying readings. She's very formal in the way she uses space, and yet she's very literary. There's narrative. There's text. Clearly she's making attempts to be metaphorical. So, I think that there's something for everyone.
GILOTHWEST You mentioned Cindy Sherman, whose work is also so concentrated on the female body and was a large force in the art world at the time when Woodman was making these images. What do you think was Woodman's relationship with what was going on in photography in the 1970s?
BLESSING I think what I find interesting about her work is that you see echoes of other artists' work or movements, and yet it's transformed into something singular. Some people have looked at her relationship to American photographers, someone like Ralph Eugene Meatyard or the narrative serial work of Duane Michals. On the other hand, she was working at a time when performance art was very important in the wake of Post-Minimalism and body art -- artists who were using the camera to document performances. It seems clear, however, that she had a visual photographic vocabulary even before she got to RISD and was exposed to that work. On the other hand, she was in a place where she certainly had access to the artists and people, who knew about, no doubt, a lot of contemporary artists making performances.
GILOTHWEST Given Woodman's tragic death and the fact that her work contains a lot of violent and morbid imagery, it's hard not to look at her oeuvre in light of her suicide. Do you think it has affected the way that her work is perceived?
BLESSING I can't speak for other people and what conclusion they might draw. For me, I think it's circumstantial in the sense that she's a young artist, and it's not unusual for a 22-year-old not to have a fully recognized career. So, I think that she would've been recognized for the work that she made, one way or the other.
GILOTHWEST Six short films, which have rarely been exhibited before, are featured in the exhibition. This will be a great opportunity to see another side of her work. You wrote an article on the films for the exhibition's catalogue. What drew you to them?
BLESSING I am very interested in artists who are primarily photographers and also use the moving image. That's more and more common today as the technology seamlessly offers the option to create a moving or a still image. What I was really drawn to in this particular case is the insight into her process that the moving images provide. They're a document of how she works, and you can kind of look at the photographs and perhaps see them differently, or see a different inflection to the photograph. There are actually some photographs that are directly related to the videos in the sense that she seemed to be creating both types of documents almost interchangeably. One of the lessons of the exhibition, or one of the opportunities that the exhibition affords, is for you to see variants of certain images and themes as they play out different decisions she makes, in terms of cropping and so on.