This Week In Photography Books – Francesca Woodman

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

Now and again, my young son will ask what happens after we die? They don’t prepare you for that in birthing class. So I do my best, and tell him that most people are buried in the ground, or burned to dust. Either way, I say, we end up merging back with the Earth. Slowly or quickly, we become the dirt, the trees, the flowers. He says he’d like to be a rock. Sounds nice.

Several weeks ago, I gave a lecture about Vivian Maier in class. My students are in their late teens; not-quite-college age. I asked how many would like to make photographs throughout a lifetime, put them in a box, and then have the trove discovered after death. (As opposed to having a living photography career.) Posthumous fame was alluring, as every student raised his or her hand. I was shocked. But later, not really. I was quite the Romantic back in the day as well.

Where am I going with this? I just, just put down “Francesca Woodman,” the new monograph by SFMOMA and D.A.P., released in conjunction with a major solo exhibition of her work. (The show soon moves to the Guggenheim Museum in NY. March 16-June 23) It’s an impressive volume, as you might imagine. Intriguing and challenging at the same time.

If you don’t know the backstory, (no shame, as I didn’t either,) Ms. Woodman made an impressively large body of work, mostly nudes, as a young woman in art school. She took her own life at the age of 22, and her work has been considered important ever since. The new traveling exhibition coincides with the 30th Anniversary of her death. (And there’s the context for the first two paragraphs. Thanks for waiting.)

Though I’ve never seen this work before, I like it very much. Ms. Woodman, I mentioned, used her own body as the primary subject of her artistic practice. (Though other people pop up multiple times.) As she was young, and attractive, it’s the type of work I’d probably dismiss if I saw it from a contemporary female photographer. Anyone today would clearly know that sex sells everything, and that’s about it. It’s hard to imagine many young female artists exploring these themes in a fresh way, what with our current global culture of image ubiquity and massive over-sharing. (This from the guy who writes about himself all the time.)

Yet the photographs are lovely, whimsical, evocative, and experimental. It’s clear that Ms. Woodman was pushing boundaries. One recurring theme, in which she melds herself in with the background, often in decrepit homes, does make you wonder how badly she wanted to disappear? And for how long?

I’ve also got to give props on a technical note or two. Given the importance of pacing and flow, when two color images emerge, late in the book, after an onslaught of grayscale: Pop. And the cover image is haunting, presaging the innards.

As many of you will no doubt have the chance to go see this work on the wall in New York, I’d heartily encourage it. I’d love to go see it myself. But the book communicates Ms. Woodman’s vision, or at least, how history has edited her vision. (A separate question entirely.) So this one comes highly recommended, as long as you don’t mind a lot of nudity.

Bottom Line: Great book, great work, sad story

To purchase Francesca Woodman visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

There Are 14 Comments On This Article.

  1. I just got this booked as well after reading about her in regards to a documentary film recently released about her family “The Woodmans” which I have yet to see. It is on my list. As a photographer, woman and RISD grad – I found these images compelling too. I look forward to seeing the prints at the show in NY. You did not mention it – and I don’t have the whole story – but there is a controversy with how her parents have controlled her work. Anyone know more?

  2. “The Woodmans” the movie is a tale of two artists whose child becomes more famous then them. It’s kind of pathetic.

    I’ve never been a fan of this work so I won’t be buying the book, but it’s easy to see her influence on every college level Photo 1 class.

    • Yeah, DB, there was one image in the book that included her birth certificate. It did make me wonder what the family story was. But I didn’t know about the film. Is it worth seeing?

      • I saw it on PBS and they (PBS) blocked out all of the nudity with blurry squares. Not a big deal but it took away from the strength of the images.
        As for the rest of the movie, I felt embarrassed for the parents, especially the father. I would not watch it a second time.

        • blake andrews

          I saw the movie a few months ago and I would very much recommend it.

          I don’t understand the appeal to Woodman’s photos, but that is part of what I find fascinating about her.

  3. “Anyone today would clearly know that sex sells everything, and that’s about it.”

    They didn’t know that in the 1970s?

  4. Frank Nachtman

    The Woodman exhibit at SF MOMA didn’t do much for me. And without the suicide looming over this story, would the work be considered as important?

    The Rineke Dijkstra exhibit that’s currently at SF MOMA is powerful and well worth a visit if you’re in the Bay Area.

  5. Darrell Eager

    Just because something doesn’t appeal to you doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. I’m sure many can see value in these images and the story. Her work has been around a long time and influenced many young women photographers.
    That a lone gives it value.

  6. Johanna Scharf

    I also watched the PBS special “The Woodman’s” The mother personifies everything I dislike about the art world. She was pompas and errogant and almost viewed motherhood as some kind of art project. She exhibited little emotion about the suicide of her youngest child. Her father showed much more pain and emotion one would expect over the death of a child. I feel Francesca was talented and In many respects ahead of her time. I her day photography was not viewed as the art form it is today. I believe seeing Francesca’s body of work to be worth while whereas spending 90 minutes watching her pathetic parents is not.

  7. I have never quite understood the increasing fascination with the work of Francesca. While interesting, it’s amazing that so much is published on her while she jumped out a window at age 22.

  8. Who knows what happens behind closed doors, in a family situation. The suicide is sad, very sad. In many ways, an audience has to separate the artist’s life from the artist’s work. In this case, that is impossible and it’s hard to say if her work would have been as celebrated as it is today, if she had not taken her own life.

    It’s worth noting, that many artists are not model citizens, to their families and to those around them. However, many seem to forget that fact when it comes to looking at the work.

    The question of the images being mostly nudes, and of a young woman and this lending to the fame of the work is a good one. There are other artists who took their lives and produced work that never gained the same traction. If I recall, I do believe one of both of her parents were connected enough to get her work seen in the 1980’s, helping lead to the fame of the imagery.

  9. This is such a great book. I remember seeing it at Hal Gould’s Camera Obscura gallery before it closed. Hal was a Denver photographer himself before he opened up his gallery. Alas, time marches on and Hal is now in his 90’s.