Francesca Woodman: about a body

Francesca Woodman left us hundreds of photographs. They are mostly black and white self-portraits, genuine in their meaningfulness and meticulous in their composition.

The subject is nearly always the same: herself. She is naked or semi-naked, wrapped in wallpaper, lying on a carpet or hanging from a doorframe.

It wasn’t narcissism. She didn’t create her photographs to gloat over herself or to show off her vanity. Instead, as Woodman stated, she used her body as a subject for her artworks because it was the only body she could always rely on. But there is another reason why Francesca preferred self-portraits. For the American photographer, portraying herself meant finding some coordinates within a physical space, often a small one: a bare room or a peeling wall.

The technique at the service of art

In taking her photographs, Woodman used long exposure, which allowed her to annihilate the boundaries of her body, blur the contours of her face and make other parts of her body evanescent. Among the techniques that Woodman adopted, the double exposure allowed her to have a double of herself, like an illusion created by invisible mirrors. Woodman’s work made an exclusive use of black and white. In Woodman’s hands, black and white were opposing extremes, epitomizing both emptiness and fullness, in a constant pursuit of balance. But no balance can exist: each body always fluctuates between one extreme and the other, between being too much and being too little.

Francesca Woodman_Self-portrait talking to Vince
Francesca Woodman, Self-portrait talking to Vince, Providence, Rhode Island 1977

A real body among real things

In Francesca Woodman’s photos, the body is not alone. Yes, it has clear boundaries and obvious limits and it represents a tangible reflection of our solitude, but it is never alone. Each body operates in a precise context: it occupies a defined area, moves the air, leaves traces. It explores and lets others explore it. Maybe, that was one of Francesca’s purposes. Just like her body was instrumental in investigating the physical world, physical thing were instrumental in investigating her body. For this reason, in her photos, she created a connection between her body and other objects, often causing a semantic shock. She was always looking for mirrors and reflecting surfaces, or searching the stalls of Porta Portese market for vintage clothes, or buying needlefish and eels in Piazza Vittorio market. That’s why her apartment, located in via dei Coronari, Rome, was incredibly stuffed with all sorts of objects.

Some Disordered Interior Geometries

What is the meaning of a body in a room? Why is the same body now in front of a mirror, now near an eel, an animal skull or among tree roots? We have to look very carefully, beyond the skin and the matter to find out, for example, that the most famous photograph of the Eel series shows the artist’s body in a curved position very similar to the form taken by the eel. This form, perhaps, reveals the artist’s attempt to go back to a primordial, animal nature. Or maybe the artist wanted to bring out of herself those “disordered interior geometries” that pervaded her and gave the title to the only collection published while she was still alive.

All these delicate things

As we admire Woodman in her own photographs, we do not know if those interior, disordered, confused geometries were the reason why she killed herself by jumping from the roof of the New York City building where she lived. What we know, instead, is that she hated immobility as well as the slow and inevitable decline of things around her. She once wrote: «I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, some work, […] instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things».


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