New Documentary Goes Into the Woodmans


Francesca Woodman’s 1981 suicide at the age of 22 conferred on the artist and her haunting black-and-white self-portraits a cult status that resonates today. And while the tragedy introduced the work to a popular audience, it also colors comprehensive analysis. Through the years, the story of Woodman has prompted an abundance of filmmakers to approach Woodman’s parents, the accomplished artists who manage the estate, with proposals for a documentary. All of them were denied, until television news producer C. Scott Willis made what he calls a “terrible social gaffe” at a 2004 brunch in Manhattan.


The 49-year-old Emmy winner met Francesca’s parents, Betty and George Woodman, without knowing their backstory. Betty is a painter and ceramacist who in 2006 exhibited solo at the Metropolitan; George is a painter and photographer and has exhibited internationally. They’ve extensively collaborated. “We started talking about children,” Willis said in an interview. Both he and the couple had daughters who had attended RISD. Willis asked if the daughters might meet, which, of course, “was problematic.” And despite “fumbling’ into the story of Woodman’s work, once he’d heard it, Willis knew this would be his next subject.

Willis and the Woodmans spoke occasionally over three years, and the director made his intentions clear. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Woodmans had been notoriously protective about releasing imagery and rights for exhibition and publication, although recently they have allowed more shows and sales to move forward. “Finally, Betty and George said, ‘Why do you think we should make the film?'” Says Willis. “And I said, ‘Candidly, if it were me, I wouldn’t.'” But the couple agreed, and for the next three years filmed in New York, Italy and China, resulting in The Woodmans, the Best Documentary winner at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The film opens Wednesday for a two-week engagement at Film Forum.

The film is a meditation on the hole left in the hearts and minds of the Woodmans, their artist son Charles, and childhood friends, with Francesca’s life (and work) as an artist as backdrop. “A film about Francesca would be a short, sad film,” explains Willis. “And I don’t think movies are particularly good at art criticism.”

In the film, George recalls giving Francesca her first camera before sending her off to Phillips Academy—and being moved, not shocked, when she returned with sophisticated nude images of herself lying in a muddy woodland. As the tale unfolds, a fevered Francesca advances rapidly into ambitious works demanding longer exposures. Willis was granted unfettered access to Francesca’s videos and 1000 pages of personal journals, subtitled excerpts of which serve as silent narration, and more than 800 printed photographs (only 120 of which have been exhibited to date).

Before her death, Francesca would endure a painful creative drought, precipitated by both competition and a break-up with her boyfriend. Former photo rep Glenn Palmer-Smith offers an anecdote about meeting Francesca on the set of a fashion shoot. “Francesca was like a third assistant, loading cameras,” he recalls. “So here I am, I’m spending my life addressing the ego of an Italian fashion photographer, meanwhile in the studio here’s one of the great photographers of the 20th Century under everyone’s nose.”

The paradigm has dramatically shifted. “Her process has always fascinated me; it is more the way a painter works, making do with what’s right in front them,” says London dealer Victoria Miro. “I think there is something about the simplicity of the work coupled with her extraordinary vision that keeps audiences, critics, and curators enthralled—she is just as elusive and beguiling as ever.”

In addition to an ongoing retrospective of previously unseen and iconic images at Victoria Miro—which were exhibited at Espacio AV in Murcia, Italy, toured to SMS Contemporanea in Siena and later Milan’s Palazzo della Ragione over the past two years—there are plans for a major Woodman retrospective at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art this year that will travel to the Guggenheim in 2012.

Compelling as the history is, the film begs the question: Why Willis? A celebrated producer but relatively unknown filmmaker, who previously worked for six years on a television documentary about the Maya, he’s not the most obvious man for the job. And why now? Speaking to him, his relative obscurity seemed to be his biggest asset. He wasn’t an art world insider.

As with the estate of any celebrated artist, this one has careful decisions to make about the distribution of works that are in-demand. Estates consider which images were anticipated for exhibition and which were not; as well as their edition and print size. Each decision can affect the price of work dramatically.

The creep of time has made one thing clear: “She’s the famous artist, and we’re the famous artist’s family,” Betty tells the camera. “And I think each of us… have sort of had to deal with this.”

George remembers reaching “the big-important event” of his 25-year career as an abstract painter, his participation in a group show at the Guggenheim. It would fatefully open five days after Francesca’s suicide. Later, Willis tags along as Woodman unveils his latest idiom: photographs of young, nude girls in poses with props (portraits of statues, for instance, a la Francesca) that ostensibly re-direct the erotic charge of his daughter’s images. It’s hard to pin down the relationships between the two bodies of works.

Meanwhile, Betty, who stopped working for years after Francesca’s death, is at times speechless on screen but also busy finalizing a massive—and triumphant—ceramic installation for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Elsewhere, a cast of old friends is teary and mournful, even if they hadn’t talked to Francesca for years before her death. The effect is simultaneously moving and off-putting, and gives the impression no one ever really knew the young photographer.