We see a naked young woman lying on the floor in the corner of a sparsely furnished room. Generously sprinkled on the floor all around her is a white powdery substance. As the young woman begins to rise she turns back to look at the black silhouette her body has left on the floor. She gets to her feet, walks toward the camera and out of the frame. We hear someone whisper "what a wonderful shape" and then louder with a girlish giggle, "I'm really pleased!" In that instant it becomes apparent that the girlish voice and giggles of the model are also those of the creator of the intriguing short video, photographer Francesca Woodman.
In a few short years, at the age of 22, Woodman would end her own life.
The fascination with Woodman's suicide has added to the allure and mystique of her reputation but also clouds our understanding of her work. Was she a precocious prodigy who began shooting photographs at age 13 and within a year was working on a mature, masterful body of work? Or was she the main character in a gothic tragedy that has reached mythic proportions? Or perhaps both?
In the 2010 documentary, The Woodmans, Francesca's parents Betty and George, both artists themselves, reflect on the life and death of their daughter. The film is lushly illustrated with Francesca's photography, videos and journal entries, as well as interviews with family members, classmates and friends. At the beginning of the film her father states:
I think it's hard to draw a line between Francesca being a provocative person as a choice -- I'm going to provoke -- and simply being provocative by her nature. I think she had quite a vivid sense of being an actor in her own drama, and that sense of being an actor in a drama gave her a skill in terms of, how should we say, organizing drama, making it work.
George gave Francesca her first camera when she was 13 years old as she was going off to boarding school. By the time she entered the Rhode Island School of Design three years later she was already well on her way creating a very sophisticated visual vocabulary. RISD Classmate and friend Sloan Rankin recalls:
She came with the idea that she was a photographer, nearly everyone else who comes doesn't know what they're going to be yet and they choose from the 19 different areas of study. She came knowing. She was a photographer and she didn't want to take 2-D and 3-D Design classes, so she had some hideous moments in class and even the teachers would ask me to go and rescue her from running away from these classes.
Another former RISD classmate, Catherine Chermayeff, recalls:
There was a real rock star quality about Francesca because she was so ambitious, so talented and so driven and so focused that you, that it was shocking. She had this enormously sophisticated eye and was incredibly original.
Chris Townsend, in his Introduction to Phaidon's lush monograph Francesca Woodman, begins the task of placing Woodman's work in an art historical context:
Woodman never understood herself as a fully realized artist, even if that is how we see her now. When she died in 1981, aged only twenty-two, she was still learning, still absorbing influences, still exploring what she wanted her work to do and testing the directions it might take. We tend to see the work very differently: what was intended as a student exercise, we may apprehend as an independent project; what was a raw experiment, we may understand as the finished article; we may perceive it in the wrong contexts, or understand it as the work of an artist in full control of her materials and her medium, rather than as part of a process by which she was coming to terms with both.
Other essays in the book look at Woodman's work through the lenses of the American Gothic, Surrealism, Feminism, Post-Minimal Photography and Self-Portraiture.
Francesca Woodman, from Space 2 series, Providence, RI, 1977
So why did this beautiful, talented young woman throw herself off the roof of a building in New York City? We may never know the full answer to that question, and a note she wrote to Catherine Chermayeff after an earlier suicide attempt does little to add to our understanding:
After three weeks and weeks and weeks of thinking about it I finally managed to try to do away with myself as neatly and concisely as possible. I do have standards and my life at this point is like very old coffee sediment, and I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, some work, my friendship with you and some other artifacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all these delicate things.