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Farewell Francesca

Francesca Woodman - photo by George Lange

Photography has the power to reveal the truth but it also has an equal power to mythologise.

The camera captures our story. Birth, Life, Death.

...But sometimes that death is far too premature. An end to a journey that has hardly begun. Francesca Woodman was a young photographer who embarked on a unique journey of the self but sadly left this world before she had really begun to realise her greatest potential as a photographer.

Her vision was simple. Her images uniquely her own. And they were often quite wonderful. She said-

"I feel that photographs can either document and record reality or they can offer images as an alternative to everyday life… places for the viewer to dream in."

Dream on...

...Francesca's legacy is especially fascinating to reflect on in our age of the selfie. Who was she? And what was real - and what was imagined?

By the turn of the 1980s, Francesca had made scores of beautiful unsettling images; fleeting and often haunting. The subject, nearly always herself. Today, more than forty years after her death she has found lasting recognition - and the admiration of world-famous people like Cindy Sherman; an artist photographer who greatly admires Francesca's work.

Cindy Sherman as a character from her series 'Untitled Film Stills' (1977 - 1980)

For decades, Cindy Sherman has played with her own ideas of identity - and, like Francesca Woodman, Cindy has been her own model.

Cindy Sherman as another character from her series 'Untitled Film Stills' (1977 - 1980)

But where Sherman has played with inventing characters, using costume, makeup & locations, Francesca's journey was only and always into herself as she explored her identity.

portrait of Francesca by her father George Woodman

And this is where, as Francesca's reputation has grown, her story has become distorted. The art establishment has chosen to remember her thus-

'...She was a melancholy soul - a tortured artist whose images foreshadowed her death.'

...But that is simply not true. It is a myth - generated in no small part by those in the business of promoting her art; no angst, no sale.

There is a saying amongst dramatists: 'There is no drama without conflict'. Part of the perceived intensity (and thereby value) of an artist's work is drawn from their life story; the more dramatic, the better - Van Gogh immediately springs to mind.

To counter the hard-sell 'doom and gloom' that some have come to drape over Francesca's work, fellow photographer, George Lange has recently published images he took of her that tell a very different story-

George Lange and Francesca

George remembers-

"I met Francesca Woodman as a fellow photo student in 1976.  She was the real deal.  She lived her art.  She looked like her art.  She had the vocabulary of art.  Her images each week, which are some of the most famous images of her brief career, BLEW me away..."

photo of Francesca Woodman by George Lange

"...Francesca’s intensity was palpable.  It scared me.  I had never met anyone who could so clearly reveal a refined vision.  She could also be a mess.  Her place was a mess.  Her photo technique, stained.  That mess is the texture of her work.  She couldn’t control everything, but somehow with her touch, that mess became poetry."

Student days - Francesca, her cats and the chaos of her studio - photo by George Lange


"I saved everything Francesca shared with me in a box.  It was filled with pictures we took together, prints she would send through the mail (with a stamp and writing right on the back), invitations she would slip under my door... The box was not Francesca’s biography, it was just a missing chapter that I shared." 

photo by George Lange

George Lange remembers a wild and happy friend but acknowledges that it is her self-portraits – funny, artful, neurotic, and occasionally painfully honest – that have always attracted the most attention. People want to see this extraordinary 'lost' girl'.

Many of George's images are in colour with Francesca captured simply as his friend - reflections on a warm and happy friendship. If Francesca had shot her work in colour, perhaps we would not be so drawn to the apparent 'melancholia' that so many want us to see.

Even George's black and whites further defy that 'unhappy' image -

photo by George Lange

photo by George Lange

“Francesca has been perceived under this very dark cloud of how she died,” says Lange, “My relationship with her was silly – we used to do all these silly things. She had this really high pitched voice and this funny little laugh. That was my relationship with her. She wasn't this tortured soul – I didn't know that person.”

“...You can reinterpret her pictures, if that’s your point of view,” says another friend, writer and journalist Betsy Berne. But- “Her life wasn’t a series of miseries. She was fun to be with. It’s a basic fallacy that her death is what she was all about, and people read that into the photographs. They psychoanalyse them. Young people in particular feel she’s talking about them, somehow. They see the photographs as very personal... Let me just emphasise: she had a great sense of humour. There’s a great deal of wit in them, and irony... We used to make fun of the feminists, but we were feminists ourselves. We read such a lot.”

Cindy Sherman offers a profound observation that applies very much to the misread Woodman: 'You can't control how people view your work. Once it's out there, it's out there..."

Francesca Woodman committed suicide in January 1981. She jumped off a building in lower Manhattan. Some said it was frustration at a lack of recognition for her work, others that it was over a failed relationship.

Art rarely pays. Francesca had moved to NYC hoping that her images would give her an inroad into the world of fashion photography but constant rejection took its toll on her youthful spirit. Reflecting on her death, Betsy Berne says- “She had an illness: depression. That’s all there is to it.” In the months leading up to her death, Francesca had stopped taking her photographs completely. Far from being harbingers of death, her images were what had brought her happiness and joy. She was lost without the impetus to carry on making them.

Just as in the work of Van Gogh, the world saw no value in Francesca's work during her lifetime. It is only with her passing and the mythologising of her work that she has found posthumous fame. And that - not her life - is where her tragedy lies.

The camera reveals the truth - but only in the moment the shutter is released. From then on the photograph takes on a life of its own. And in our perception of the life of somebody like Francesca Woodman, the line between myth and reality - between truth and fiction can sometimes shift to the point of no return.

photo by George Lange

Francesca was full of life. And so were her pictures. She was the child of artists and, no doubt, had seen at first hand how highly subjective the response to art can be. I guess she was - despite her youth - a wise enough artist to know that ultimately 'truth' (whatever that means) is in the eye of the beholder.

I'm glad we know you, Francesca. I'm sorry you are gone.

Blog copyright Matthew Whiteman February 2024

Images strictly copyright George Lange and the estate of Francesca Woodman

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1 Comment

Feb 07

Really interesting article to hear about another side to Francesca