The following comments are made after looking at various of Francesca Woodman’s images in the book compiled by Chris Townsend (1), as well as online.
Images by Woodman are a bit disturbing at first. She used her nude body from very early in her photography, when she was still a minor, and while this may have seem normal within the art world of the 1970s, the moral compass has tightened significantly since those times and nowadays I would not be so sure that this type of photographic exploration would be greatly tolerated. Her images, however, are all self-made and one would have to understand the nudity as a way of expression, perhaps even as a form of visual exploration which is combined with props (mirrors, cabinets, fittings, stuffed animals, food), movement and light in search for new forms of representation, sometimes clearly allegorical (this image for instance, is in my mind a clear reference to death), but mainly quite puzzling. In many of her images, Woodman seems to be trying to fit into the space within the frame (see for instance here) and I wonder if one interpretation of her nudity would be that clothes were just another barrier between herself and her surroundings. I do not think is the sole interpretation, because there are also plenty of other images of her in which she does not appear nude, or where it is not possible to ascertain that, when she makes an effort to blend into her surroundings, in a way that could be characterised as surreal (see for instance this image, that plays into optical tricks).
It is clear, given that most of Woodman’s pictures were taken in her studio or in controlled environments, that she did not take snapshots. Woodman images sometimes come across as chaotic or simply cobbled together. Her composition is many cases unbalanced, leaving seemingly unnecessary negative space (see for instance the top picture here, Spring in Providence #1, where her head is slightly cropped and the long sheet of paper, the main focal point, is dead centre, leaving too much space not contributing to anything on the left), but they were all pre-meditated, with her making sketches about how she imagined the pictures to come out. It is a calculated effort to unnerve the viewers and grab their attention as much as possible. Out of the many visual resources Woodman uses, perhaps one of my favourite is her use of light or shadow to create additional dimensions in a photograph, elevating it temporarily from its inherent flatness. I particularly enjoyed looking at this untitled image from her series taken in Providence, Rhode Island, between 1975 and 1978. The combination of the strong back light and the shadow of her torso on the lower part of the shutter creates the illusion that she is cut in half, floating in front of the window.
The study guide quotes a comment by Susan Bright in which she suggests that Woodman’s images allude to “a troubled state of mind” (2). Without the help of hindsight (Woodman committed suicide shortly after graduating from art school), and putting aside the aforementioned issue of her widespread use of nudity, it is not clear to me that there is a consistent connection between her early pictures, including those taken in Rhode Island and Rome, and troubles of the mind; or even to think they are alluding to sentiments of sadness or loneliness. There are certainly multiple references to gothic themes, including death (see previously referenced image, but also this one) and decay, but in many cases these references seem to me a natural consequence of Woodman’s eccentricity and lifestyle choices (see for instance the series taken by Douglas Prince at Woodman’s studio / home in Rhode Island in the late 70s, which gives a glimpse of the conditions under which the artist lived, often resembling the aesthetics of her images). If anything, it is her later work, as she was starting her practice in New York following completion of her studies, that gives me a slight hint of sadness, but also more clear references to the possibility of self-harm (see for instance this one, which seems to allude to suicide). Woodman wanted to establish herself as a fashion photographer, but her attempts at this were not particularly memorable and were perhaps too much of a compromise between her seemingly gothic, organic, muddled personality and the clarity and asceticism that fashion photography often requires (this example strikes me as particularly sad).
So what remains? Woodman used her body extensively, almost exclusively, as a “prop” for visual experimentation. I am not entirely sure that most of her pictures are personal in the sense that she is trying to tell her story. Instead, I would like to think that her lifestyle was just the medium for her expression. The pictures have clear themes and allude to issues such as fitting (a constant in many of Woodman’s images, where she is trying to blend with her surroundings) and human interaction, but most of the images feel detached and cold, as if they were trying to serve a higher purpose, clearly anchored in the aesthetic, rather than function as a way of dealing with personal pain.
(1) Townsend, C., 2016. Francesca Woodman. Phaidon Press
(2) Boothroyd, S., 2017. Photography 1: Context and Narrative. 4th ed. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts. Pp 74.