Crows gather all kinds of things in their nests. They like shiny objects or whatever strikes their fancy. I, too, like to gather a variety of things, but unlike a crow, I like to share what I find, as well as what I create myself.
The largest-ever retrospective of the work of photographer Francesca Woodman arrives this month at the Guggenehim, direct from the SFMOMA. Organized by the museum’s associate curator of photography, Corey Keller, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue collects 178 images by the immensely prodigious young photographer who, with little warning, took her own life in 1981 at the age of twenty-two. What remained was a treasure trove of ghostly and profound photographs — mostly self-portraits – in haunting black-and-white, that represent a short window of a short life.
I spoke with Corey Keller over the phone from Brooklyn last year, where I was experiencing the first snow of an early winter. Though in the midst of the installing the exhibition, she was generous enough to give me an hour of her time. The snowfall continued for hours after we hung up, and I later learned that it was the earliest snowfall on record in the history of New York City. – Carmen Winant
The Believer: How did you come to be involved in this retrospective?
Corey Keller: Woodman is a photographer whose work I had been aware of, but had never known well. At one point I was speaking with Marion Goodman, who represents the Woodman estate, and she said that the Woodman family was ready for a major retrospective of their daughter’s work. There hasn’t been a big show of hers in this country since 1986. My first thought was that I was familiar with the work — there had been an exhibition in Paris in 1998 – and I wasn’t sure what the show would accomplish. But when I looked at what Marion had in the gallery, I was really intrigued. There was so much that I had never seen, far beyond the iconic photographs I knew.
BLVR: Did you go to the Woodman’s home?
CK: Yes. They allowed me go through boxes of prints Francesca had left behind, and I just couldn’t believe what I found. There are the pieces that everyone knows, but there is so much more. I decided that there was a different story to be told about her than what is often recounted.
BLVR: I’ve heard that her parents, George and Betty, who are both artists, are very protective of her archive, and that access has been limited in the past.
CK: No… the Woodmans have welcomed tons of scholars into their studio, and as a result there have been quite a few shows in Europe — Spain and Italy alone in the past year. There are false rumors of a huge archive that has never been shown. It’s true that a lot of her work hasn’t been seen, but it isn’t because her family has prevented that. There are just certain images that people chose to show over and over again.
BLVR: I’d like to leap right into one of the more difficult aspects of Woodman’s legacy for a curator and critic: the artist’s suicide in 1981 at the age of 22. I assume that this aspect of her biography was impossible for you to completely avoid. Do you feel that her premature death informs the reading of her work as inherently tortured?
CK: There is obviously no way to avoid her suicide, but I have chosen not to focus on it. When you write a history, you know how it ends, and it inflects the way you read the beginning. Because of the particulars of this story, and the shortness of it, it has a way of casting a pall over all of the work. There is a lot of retroactive casting of her work as a result. I have heard someone describe her images of “Sloan in the Bathtub” as referencing a coffin, or the images of birch bark wrapped around her wrists as bandages. I’ve talked to many of her friends, and the one thing that came across from all of them is that don’t recognize the person that people tell those stories about. Each person described Francesca as whimsical, quirky, fragile — and needed taking care of, perhaps — but not depressive or sad. All of them talk about how funny she was, and when she worked, how it was madcap, imaginative flights of fancy. So I think it does a disservice to the work to only look at it through that lens.
BLVR: It mainly means that her productive period, in which she produced about 800 photographs, was remarkable short.
CK: Right, we only get one chapter of her work as an artist. That’s the saddest part. It focuses our attention on the portion of an artist’s career that we don’t normally look at — their student work. Had she come to full maturity, the work she did as an undergraduate might not be the main event anymore.
BLVR: The tragic heroine mythology reminds me of how people speak about Diane Arbus’ legacy in relation to her suicide. It’s part of her lore, and that apect bleeds into how people view the work itself.
CK: It’s interesting; the SFMoMA had the Arbus show Revelations in 2004. She is an artist who came to full maturity and created an incredible body of work, and still, when people came to see the show, all they wanted to know was about the way she took her own life. Those kinds of stories, for better or for worse, have a hold on people’s imaginations. It is a terrible tragedy, and the tragic figure is always a romantic hero.
BLVR: Woodman was making photographs in the mid-seventies to the late eighties, a time when feminism was hitting its full stride in this country. Her work has since been included in various feminist retrospectives. Still, there are differing views: some people believe that simply being a woman who used her body in her work doesn’t qualify her as a feminist. Others think that the manner in which she used her own flesh as both subject and object is a subtle and deep critique in itself. What’s your opinion?
CK: The best I could do in terms of primary research was to speak with her friends. They were all aware of the feminist movement, but they were young, and were not particularly interested or engaged in it. So it’s hard to say. She didn’t fancy herself Barbara Kruger, and she wasn’t a radical feminist by any stretch of the imagination. But the issue wasn’t lost on her either. In fact, I read somewhere that one of her friends recounted Woodman’s fear that she “wasn’t enough of a feminist.” Her friend Betsy told me that, in some way, they were all feminists by virtue of the fact that they were able to take advantage of the freedoms that those actively fighting for women’s right had won. In that sense, she was a product of her time, being a powerful and creative woman who put herself at the center of her practice.
BLVR: There is something really specific about her body, which is conventionally beautiful — kind of young, thin, and supple – that, to my mind, consciously feeds the erotic charge of her images. I’m interested in how curators and art historians confront the issue of her… sexiness, let’s say. In her catalog essay, the art historian Julia Bryan Wilson writes that the use of this specific body “potentially colludes with the pornographic gaze, instead of frustrating it.”
CK: The pictures are undeniably about her and her body. It’s not a body. When she puts clothespins on her nipples and her stomach, or presses her body against a piece of glass, she was feeling that. So it’s not the formal study of a nude, it’s a particular nude. In the 70’s they used to say that “the personal is political.” What Woodman produced is a very personal vision. It permeates every aspect of her work; it was never something she was “trying on.” The look can be imitated, of course, but then it becomes pure style. For her, it came from some place much deeper, in which the style and content are profoundly intertwined.
BLVR: This catalgoue was the first time I’d seen Woodman’s photographs of men, even if they are sparing. I was reminded of this Collier Schorr quote I once read, something like, “I am photographing women, just using men to do it.” Do you believe Woodman was using men as surrogates in that way? Woodman often appears to me to live in a world where she is the only human being who exists; it’s odd enough to see other female bodies appear in her photographs, so her images of men startled me.
CK: She definitely photographed men in her practice, but not many. Charlie, the model at RISD, was one subject, and Paulo, an Italian friend, was another. He had a very feminine, sinuous body. The male figures she was interested in were very ambiguous in that way, and often appeared clothed. In two cases, she appeared next to them in the nude. Her friend, the painter Dale Chisholm, appears wearing one of her floral dresses. There is some attempt to treat the male body, but not so much interest in photographing it.
BLVR: The catalog also includes some of Woodman’s own writing beneath selected prints. Some text is descriptive: “depth of field” or “after my grandmother’s funeral,” and some is loaded: “a woman, a mirror, a woman is a mirror from a man.” Can you talk about the choice to include her text in the book, and will it also be present in the exhibition?
CK: This will be the first exhibition since 1986 of vintage prints — those are the ones with the text on them — which are being loaned by the Woodman’s for the first time. Where her inscriptions exist, and where they add to the picture, we have shown them.
BLVR: Woodman studied abroad for a year in Rome, where you write she “encountered surrealist texts.” Can you speak in a little more depth about that? Her photographs have a sculptural quality that feels reminiscent of surrealist photography — someone like Hans Belmer, for instance — but at the same time they are distinctively performative.
CK: I agree that her work certainly isn’t linked to a surrealist artist like Man Ray, but in creating ghostly, other-worldly scenarios to be photographed, she is conceptually aligned with the movement. The surrealists were struggling with, or profiting from, using photography — a medium rooted in the representation of the real — as a tool with which to depict psychological conditions. Woodman considers how to picture the invisible, and in this sense she is a real surrealist in spirit.
BLVR: I suppose that Woodman was exposed to these ideas far before she went to Rome?
CK: There was a whole second wave of surrealist-inspired photographers in the United States working before and around her time — someone like Eugene Meatyard, for instance, or Duane Michaels, who was a direct influence.
BLVR: As far as Woodman’s method goes, how did she actually take all of the self-portraits? I don’t think I’ve seen a release in her images; I assume she used a self -timer?
CK: In some cases there is a release, but not very often. Sometimes she had a friend focus and snap the image, and sometimes she used the self-timer. I believe it is a combination of the three.
BLVR: I’ve also heard that she didn’t use a light meter.
CK: No, she didn’t strive for technical perfection. In photography, at that moment, the idea itself was suddenly as important as the technical print.
BLVR: Most of her images are shot in medium format — the square negative. It’s a shape that denies the outside world in some way, creating a contained, symmetrical environment.
CK: The square is a tough format to shoot in. It’s antithetical to photographic traditions; it’s neither portrait nor landscape. It is perfectly suited to her work. The old fashioned camera equipment — she loved all things vintage — was probably appealing for that reason, too. We were just hanging the show, centering the images on the wall at the sightline, and we began to notice how often her images are off center, off-kilter, within the square frame. It’s telling.
BLVR: I’ve taught photography to college students, and without fail at least half of the group name Woodman as a towering influence. I’m interesed in her effect on young, contemporary female photographers; a phenomenon the artist and teacher Nancy Davenport bitingly labeled “the Francesca Woodman strategy.” I’m wondering if you can talk about this.
CK: Woodman’s appeal to me seems obvious: Here is a young woman who took the simplest and most available of subjects — herself — and turned it into an incredible body of work. And she received international recognition. That must feel incredibly appealing to an art student. She worked with basic, close-at-hand materials, and to great effect. She has a powerful self-confidence in her work and a maturity in her vision. When speaking to one of her old New York friends, I asked if they went to galleries often together. She replied that they did, but not to look at other people’s art. They went so Francesca could show her work. She was an ambitious young woman and a hard worker with an understanding of self-promotion. Francesca was not naïve.
“In Untitled (1976), a contact sheet of eleven photographs, Woodman physically articulates the experience of transition… Divided, her identity a blur, she is counterpoised between the past and the future. Standing before her photographs, suspended in a young adult purgatory I thought I would never leave, I felt the same way: illegible, pulled in two.”