Francesca Woodman – Untitled (1979)
One of the reasons Woodman is such a beloved artist pivots along the axis of her works’ radical accessibly–extensive knowledge of photographic history and/or technique isn’t requisite for immediate, profound appreciation.
The more craft gets under your skin though, the more an appreciation of Woodman’s work pays unexpected dividends.
The time I’ve spent with Woodman’s work lately has been–for the first time–somewhat frustrating. I think it was something that started as an inkling at the back of my brain after I visited the Guggenheim’s retrospective back in 2012.
The exhibit was laid out roughly chronologically and this brings into sharp focus how the themes and motifs with which she was obsessed were always preternaturally lucid and gathered at the fore.
It was fascinating to see the subtle ways she sharpened the work in small, nuanced increments from a Corsican vendetta knife to a blade so sharp that in the act of cutting it cut itself.
But what strikes me as something that has been overlooked is the extent to which Woodman’s view towards craft clearly shifted as she matured.
I’d wager a major factor in why no one has touched this is a result of the panoply of prints out there and the lack of accurate records of whether the print was made by Woodman herself or her estate (which as I understand it means that her father made them).
There is a trend though. Unlike the typical darkroom novice, Woodman’s early work is murky, mired in muddy tones. There’s a sharp divergence marked by the lead up to her arrival at RISD–her prints become more even, flirting with technical perfection. Her time abroad in Rome is when she produced her most visionary printing–embracing a seemingly chaotic (but ultimately studied and rigorously controlled) photographic tenebrism.
Her subsequent struggles with failing to crack into the fashion industry–my only substantive criticism of her work is that her fashion stuff is truly regrettable, and her return to more personal explorations are all marked by a pointed downplaying of stylized print making.
Much hay has been made of her debt to Duane Michals as a result of scrawling cryptic texts on some of her most well known work. But her printing strategy in her later work demonstrates a pathological obsession with replicating Michals interplay of tonality and grain.
The negative is substantively underexposed. Note: how the contrast is decreased and the image is flattened by the crop and the softening of the shadow Woodman is casting on the wall behind her.
I prefer the contact print above; however, if you read the image (and I feel it’s safe to do so given the accompanying date) as an allegory on Woodman’s feelings about her failure as a fashion photographer, pushing the ugliness of the image in printing makes a hell of a lot of sense.