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A new exhibition honours the work of Francesca Woodman, whose strange images remain fascinating riddles forty years after her death, writes Andrew Dickson.

At first glance, the photograph appears straightforward. We’re in some kind of domestic interior. A large pane of glass leans against the wall, and behind it is a dark doorway. The paint is peeling, and the floorboards are filthy. Then you notice the apparition – a blurred shape that appears to be human. Whoever this person is, they appear to be dangling from above or leaping into the frame. Is there a flaw in the film? A ghost morphing from ectoplasm into human form?

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Another image is even more bizarre. This image depicts an old anatomical museum with glass cases on the walls displaying waxwork foetuses. The most disturbing image is of a woman in a white leotard crouching on the floor with her arms bunched around her neck. She appears to be in a lot of pain. Panic? Terror? Despair? Again, her face is blurred and unreadable; whatever is going on here is left to speculation.

Society loves the idea of tormented artists, particularly young female ones

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Four decades after her death, the photographs taken by the young American artist Francesca Woodman remain a mystery. What are her hundreds of surviving prints, mostly in the same small format and almost entirely in black and white, saying with their intense theatricality and gothic, ghoulish sensibility? Why did Woodman keep photographing herself naked in graveyards and abandoned houses, or entwining her body with tree roots and rotting vegetation? Is this a feminist performance, a tribute to classical art, or something else entirely? And what do these images reveal about the woman who created them?

Untitled, Florence, Italy, ca. 1976 (Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York) That last question is especially poignant because Woodman committed suicide in January 1981, just a few years after making these photographs, at the age of 22. Her photographs were rarely shown in public, and a book she’d been working on had not yet been published; it was distributed at her funeral. 

This, perhaps unavoidably, has only added to the myth-making. Few critics have been able to resist using the circumstances of Woodman’s death as the key to unlock her work in the decades since it was rediscovered – it is now on display in major museums around the world. Tormented artists, particularly young female artists, are popular in society. Even better if they were neglected throughout their lives. “Is Francesca Woodman the Sylvia Plath of photography?” a Slate article once asked. Which leads to the only logical response: what does that even mean?

It feels important to give Francesca her own voice… it’s about time – Lissa McClure

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A new exhibition at New York’s Marian Goodman gallery invites us to reconsider Woodman, perhaps more carefully and attentively. It is titled Alternate Stories and contains approximately 50 photographs and contact sheets, nearly half of which have never been seen publicly before. The accompanying catalogue contains excerpts from her copious notes and writings.

“It feels important to give Francesca her own voice,” says Lissa McClure, executive director of the Woodman Family Foundation, which protects the photographer’s legacy and is behind the new exhibition. “It’s a matter of time.”

A master image-maker

Woodman was born in Denver, Colorado, to a family that considered art to be a form of religion, according to her older brother Charles. “It was like a background, just there,” he says over the phone from his home in California to BBC Culture. Betty, their mother, made ceramics, and George, their father, was a painter who taught at the university. Though money was scarce, Charles recalls family vacations in Europe during which the kids were dragged through museums and galleries, imbibing art.

“Oh, dragged on forever,” he laughs. “We kind of assumed that was normal – after all, we’d been to the Sistine Chapel, the Prado, and the Louvre.” (Charles, too, became an artist.) This time in video and electronics.)

Francesca got in through the medium-format Yashica camera her father gave her when she went to boarding school in 1972. Encouraged by a teacher, she began taking photographs almost immediately and appears to have emerged, astonishingly, almost fully formed. Self-Portrait at 13, a remarkable early work, shows her in a baggy fisherman’s sweater and trousers, her face swallowed by a mane of thick hair caught in a halo of light (she appears to be operating the shutter-release with a stick or cable pulled taut, which becomes a ghostly presence in the frame). Even the title is an art-historical in-joke, a reference to a famous self-portrait painted by the Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer at the same age.

Untitled, Boulder, Colorado, c 1975 (Credit: Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Woodman Family Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

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Other early images pay homage to Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic landscapes or recall Victorian “spirit photography,” in which photographers used various tricks (blurring from slow shutter speeds, lens flare, double-exposures) to make it appear as if ghosts were captured on film. Surrealist photographers such as Dora Maar and Man Ray can also be seen, as well as references to everyone from Edgar Allen Poe to Zola and Colette.

“She knew how to make a good photograph at a very young age,” McClure says. “Her images and content are both sophisticated and rich.”

Italy was probably the most influential on the young Woodman. She learned Italian when her family relocated there, and she returned to Rome during her Rhode Island School of Design study-abroad year (RISD). She was heavily influenced by classical architecture and allowed the city’s intoxicating mix of beauty and decrepitude to seep into the silver-gelatin prints she was developing, as well as palling around with older artists, many of whom appeared a little overawed by her talents.

Fish Calendar – 6 Days (1977-78) is a series of self-portraits-turned-still lives in which Woodman poses with “the most beautiful lemons clothed in soft green mould” and some sinister-looking, eel-like creatures she bought at a local market. In one photo, she is standing with only her legs visible, dangling a fish between her thighs so that it blends with the curved stripes of her tights (the tights reappear in another picture taken around this time: Woodman had a great eye for clothes).

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