American, 1951-1981, Self Deceit, Rome 1978 (Gelatin silver print)
As critic Max Kozloff has written, Francesca Woodman ‘was scarcely more than a child when she undertook a photographic soliloquy on her own person.’A deeply unhappy child, one is tempted to add, in the light not only of her subsequent suicide, but the melancholy, tentative and fitfully despairing tenor of her work – though one should resist drawing the obvious conclusion. Life and art are two different things, not always mutually inclusive, and genteel melancholia after all is photography’s natural state.
Woodman photographed herself in empty rooms, generally against the crumbled, distressed walls beloved of photographers from the medium’s inception. She used a minimum of props, the most important of which were a mirror and a vitrine. Her most frequently utilised technique was the time exposure, which had the effect of blurring and diffusing her figure, and contributes largely to the evanescent, yearning quality of these ethereal meditations upon the pain of existence. Her imagery might be considered usefully as a series of stills from an extended theatrical performance – dancelike in mode – upon the presentation of the self, or more specifically upon the dissembling of the self. In her evocation of the extended moment and her inclination to work in series, she clearly sought to escape the strictures of the single image and still, frozen photographic stasis. And in her off-kilter compositions and constant roulades of wispy, swirling flight, she appears to hammer at the boundaries of the photographic frame itself. Coupled with a dissolution of corporeal solidity, we have a voice which speaks longingly of fleeing from the earthbound confines of the flesh, bridging the gap between material physicality and immaterial spirituality, and giving poignant articulation to her own sense of mortality. There are perhaps more down-to-earth considerations too. Woodman’s oeuvre seems to have informed by the apparently inconsolable thought (for her) that society’s cards are irrevocably stacked against her sex. That no matter how hard she might try to escape constriction by gender, only in her art could she be free, and even there, as Kozloff notes, ‘despite whirl or wispy flight, she is hindered by what encases or impedes her’ – be it the boundaries of the frame or her own identity.
Her work derives from several traditions, notably the seventies American tendency to combine personalised psychodramas with the temporal and spatial displacements of long exposures and blurred movement. Her work has been appropriated by representational theorists, yet seems much more existential rather than politically knowing in tone. Her true spiritual home would seem to be the closed, hermetic, nineteenth century world of Julia Margaret Cameron or Lady Harwarden, a photographic world where blur and ambiguity – as well as theatre and fantasy – similarly played their parts. ‘I would have liked to have been a Victorian,’3 Woodman said. Thus Self Deceit is typical, harking back to those claustrophobic English rooms and the telling, telltale mirrors of proto-feminist regard. But here Woodman avoids the self-reflective gaze, preferring instead to mirror a mysterious, vaguely defined alter ego, while the subject/object herself, a pallid, naked sprite, performs an airy dance. This alter ego is the photographer wearing trousers, determinedly uncertain of gender, giving eloquent credence to Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s assertion that ‘Woodman’s work dislodges historically defined notions of masculine and feminine in its indeterminacy.’