Francesca Woodman was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1958. A daughter of art – her parents were both artists – and she approached photography very early. She made her first self-portrait at the age of thirteen: The first of a long series that will see her as protagonist, until her death. Her parents loved Italy, so she spent long periods there from an early age, especially in the Tuscan countryside, where her parents lived for a period on a farm. As soon as she finished her art studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, she moved to Rome, then to New York. Here she attempted a career in the world of photography: she sent many portfolios around, without getting much attention. It was in this time that she experienced her first period of depression: she had no professional prospects before her, she had broken up with her boyfriend. She attempted suicide for the first time but failed. The following year – 1981 – instead, she succeeded in her intent: she flew from a window of a building on the East Side. Behind her, there was another refusal for a bursary and a bad relationship. She had invested all her hopes and energies in a happy career as a photographer. A career she believed in and that was struggling to take off. The constant refusal was a drain. However, she didn’t stop photographing, didn’t even think about it : during her short life she had made 10,000 negatives, even if today only 120 photographs are published and exhibited, all in small format. This is because her images are an intimate experience for the viewer, which requires attention and meditation.
In her photos there is always her, Francesca. Never posing, but always in motion, blurry, hidden. A ghost in her own body, because it is always at the center, the body. A living, vital, young body inside abandoned buildings, houses with peeling, old walls. It is Francesca’s soul in a shell – the body – which is sometimes too heavy. There is melancholy in Francesca Woodman’s photographs, sadness, but there is always life, emotion, femininity. There is the delicacy of a body leaning against a decadent wall, next to a flower. It is a calla, an ancient flower, a symbol of purity. “I have standards and my life, at this point, is like an old coffee ground, and
I’d rather die young, preserving what has been done, rather than confusingly erasing all these delicate things” wrote Francesca Woodman shortly before dying.
For those interested, the Carl Kruse blog on Arts has a more extensive review of the photography of Francesca Woodman which can be seen here. Her Wikipedia entry is here and the British newspaper Guardian’s retrospective on her life is located at this article.