On 19 January 1981, a young female photographer fell angel-like from the loft window of a building on New York City’s East Side. She fell several stories until she landed on the pavement below where she died on impact. The death of photographer Francesca Woodman, then just 22, perhaps felt inevitable, though perhaps we can only say that through the filter of speculative retrospect. Just the year before, Woodman, following several unsuccessful attempts to have her work recognised and the breakdown of a relationship, attempted suicide. After his daughter died, Francesca Woodman’s father, George Woodman, suggested that Francesca had finally been tipped over the edge by the National Endowment for the Arts refusing her application for funding.
What’s so ultimately tragic about all this is that, in death, Woodman’s influence grew and grew. Her images – she produced around 800 works in her short life – have become instantly recognisable and her place within photography circles is assured. This has led to much recent analysis and thought-pieces concerning the overarching themes and ideas of Woodman’s work. Much has been made, for example, of the feminist slant of Woodman’s images, though her mother, Betty, suggests this is something that has been read into the work and, instead, much of her daughter’s work was created in the spirit of humour.
Visit any university photography class and you are guaranteed to find striking traces of Woodman’s work present in more than one student project. The strange and fragile nature of Woodman’s work makes her instantly attractive to young students getting to grips not just with the possibilities and parameters of creative photography, but also with themselves as living, breathing, autonomous individuals. Woodman tried to push the boundaries of experimental photography by playing with the camera function, such as shutter speed and exposure, as well as her use of the body as a compositional and thematic device.
You can see these ideas, particularly, the latter in big contemporary names such as conceptual artist Sophie Calle and the photographer Cindy Sherman. ‘[Woodman] had few boundaries and made art out of nothing: empty rooms with peeling wallpaper and just her figure,’ said Sherman when asked about the influence of Woodman on her own work. ‘No elaborate stage set-up or lights… Her process struck me more the way a painter works, making do with what’s right in front of her, rather than photographers like myself who need time to plan out what they’re going to do.’
Woodman’s work is appearing at the Tate Liverpool as part of a joint show with another artist whose influence has been thoroughly noted and who also employs the body as a strange and uncanny thing. Austrian-born Egon Schiele is considered one of the major figurative painters of the 20th century and with good reason. His confrontational yet beautiful paintings are intense and rawly sexual. The figures in his images seem to twist, turn and contort on the canvas yet stop just short of rendering themselves as the kind of hideous, visceral grotesqueries found in the images of Francis Bacon.
Schiele’s nudes are, ultimately, striking and honest; the intimate fleshy spaces of his models are rendered so utterly visible and alive. However, Schiele didn’t restrict himself just to painting others. Like Woodman, he used his own body as a device to explore notions of identity and humanity. As a photography magazine, this obviously isn’t the space to get into the details of Schiele’s paintings but it is certainly interesting to compare and contrast Schiele’s works with Woodman’s and look at the ways in which they differed in the use of the gaze – Schiele projected his gaze outwards to explore the bodies of others; Woodman turned the gaze inwards.
Woodman is one of many artists who have found themselves posthumously romanticised (as her father pointed out in a 2014 interview with The Guardian, ‘People like to mythologise artists’.) Note the opening line of this review and the description of Woodman falling ‘angel-like’ to her death. That’s a fairly typical description and it’s something that seems to be the want of writers detailing the lives of creative women, particularly those who died by their own hand. What’s good about this exhibition and the recent reassessment of Woodman’s work is that it cuts through this mythologising and manages to get through to the genuinely unique and progressive quality of her work. Woodman’s influence on
contemporary photography is not only assured, it’s deserved.