Francesca WoodmanDepth of field, Providence, Rhode Island (1975-8)

Woodman first appeared on my radar in either late 2005 or early 2006.

Her Wikipedia entry was much sparser then–not that it’s anything to write home about now; however, it did have one fantastic feature: there was a ridiculously chronological index of approximately 120 of her photos. (At that point it was the most comprehensive collection of her work–essentially, every photo uploaded to the Internet was centrally linked.)

Dribs and drabs of additional work would emerge as new exhibitions went up. And the spate of new and/or updated monographs in the late aughts introduced even more work.

That shifted noticeable with her 2012 Guggenheim retrospective in NYC–which if memory serves consisted of 20% new/rare photographs.

The Guggenhein show was staged more or less chronologically. Beginning with the early work–culminating in her Swan Song series; before interjecting the work she made while studying in Italy for a year (which was housed in a passage and adjacent niche), followed by the ‘failed’ fashion photographic efforts and then looping back into the first room where there was work from her time at the MacDowell artist colony.

This layout was simplistic but with the simplification driven by cleverness not torpor–allowing her work to demonstrate itself as always of exceptional quality but arranged in such a way that her incandescent genius becomes all that much more apparently as she slowly begins to fire on all cylinders. (If nothing else a strict chronological view of the work shares with the viewer a sense of hard work finally paying off when you consider a photo like the one of her as her alter ego Sloan side-by-side with other work from the same period. She was getting better, saw she was getting better and derived confidence from the awareness.)

The narrative of her trajectory has always been that she peaked during her year abroad and never quite managed to reach such Olympian heights ever again. The notion that her fashion experiments were a failure dovetails nicely with this theory.

Still, it’s always bothered me that one of my favorite photos she ever made emerges from the same period as the fashion ‘failures’–namely, this self-portrait with a wasp on her neck.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve noticed a deluge of work I’ve previously never seen emerging. (The above is an example of such.) There’s no enough of it that I am beginning to question the endurance of the narrative that she was very good but also immature, undisciplined and very lucky.

There’s a couple of things you have to keep in mind here: first, the photos that until recently have been understood as her overarching body of work were ones she exhibited during her life. The subsequent work that’s emerged has been released into the world by her parents. (This has led to issues where there exist an original print or two she made herself vs work that he father has reprinted–the latter tend to present a more dynamic range of tones, whereas hers skew much darker, as a rule.)

The notion that the fashion work was a complete failure is something I think the newly released work calls sharply into question. I won’t argue that a lot of it is bad. There’s enough of it that is at least stubbornly iconoclastic that suggests something further at work here.

Increasingly, I think that what gets interpreted as failure was merely an effort to play the can I be an artist in mid-to-late capitalism and not starve. My impression is that Woodman was attempting to fit her style and preoccupations to what she understood as the framework high fashion sought. When, really, the other way round was the way she should’ve approached it. (A more concrete way of putting it might be to suggest that whereas her early work were about self-expression, the later work is an effort to invert the ploy of inventing an alter ego like Sloan (to allow herself to explore–representation at some degree of remove) and instead wanted to filter her work in such a way that she would be perceived as belonging on the fashion scene. It didn’t work because too much of who she was involved independence and a commitment to non-conformity.

As bad as some of the fashion stuff, it is not all bad and she continued to make exceptional work–or that’s what the emerging work suggests to me. It’s almost as if the darker her vision became the more increasingly universal the reaction to and response to her work.

Francesca WoodmanUntitled (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.

So it was fascinating to see this contact print as a comparison with a print of the same image.

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.

Francesca WoodmanSome Disordered Interior Geometries (1981)

Although it’s on some level problematic: I have moments where I think of Ms. Woodman as if she were both still alive and as if she and I were a couple.

Let me try to clarify that so it’s less presumptuous and entitled: I read a lot of critics who bemoan her enduring appeal. They say she wasn’t really all that good. That she’s only canonized due to her broad public appeal–a sort of way to put asses in the seats–so to speak.

I don’t agree with either perspective. If anything Woodman was a great deal better than even her current popularity speaks to–her work still suffers from centuries of entrenched art historical sexism.

As to her enduring appeal, there is a way in which her work comes across as not exactly conversational but… wait, I know how to say it! I just need to steal from someone smarter than me.

In her brilliant summary of the best movie of 2014–Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive–the lovely and amazing Knitphilia describes the interactions between Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston’s characters in the film thusly: “the pair conversationally present amazing trufax to one another as love gifts.”

As vampires both have lived for centuries, they’ve seen and done it all. The range of new experiences open to them is if not long exhausted, finite. Yet, amazing trufax–and, and! Books and Art and Music as avenues of transmission–are something that can still stir awe in them.

That’s how I feel looking at Woodman’s work! It’s as if the medium is the message and the message is a constant stream of amazing trufax, little loving offerings that this insanely talented young woman who died shortly after my birth keeps leaving behind for me to glimpse if I pay careful attention.

Francesca WoodmanUntitled, New York (1979-80)

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –

And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through –

And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –

Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –
                     -Emily Dickinson

Stephan BrigidiFrancesca Woodman contact sheets (1978)

Despite the absence of her characteristic compositional asymmetry and murky mid-tones, these are frequently attributed to Woodman instead of Brigidi.

(I only sourced them because it seemed odd–given my familiarity with Woodman’s oeuvre–that I had no recollection whatsoever of these contacts.)

If nothing, the instinct to impose false attribution is not entirely misguided. After all, the prevailing art historical framing holds Woodman as the progenitor of the current surfeit of confessional self-portraiture.

This conceit has always frustrated me. First, Self portrait at thirteen demonstrates a more comprehensive grasp of photography as Art than 95% of the legacy claimers.

Second, the rule every seventh grade literature student leans the writer and the narrator aren’t necessarily the same individual is ignored.

To my mind, there’s a reason only one of her images explicitly bears the ‘self-portrait’ designation: Woodman only documented herself in the strictest sense. Really, it was more that hue was playing a character in a single frame film.

This is made clearest with her flirtation with an alter ego, Sloan, resemblances to Lewis Carroll’s Alice and her On Becoming an Angel series.

My feeling has always been that Woodman’s images are much closer to a sort of alchemical fiction–being by way of photography a means of becoming. As if all the identities in the world are dresses hung in a wardrobe and image making offered a mode of trying them all on one-by-one to see which ones fit, which ones pinched and which ones did little more than hang like limp sails in horse latitude doldrums.

On top of that, there is a sort of underlying menace to her experiments. Whenever I look at her images, I have a feeling similar to someone I care about showing me scars from self-harm. To an extent, I think photography served as an externalizing stand in for cutting–at least initially, at least through her arrival in Rome; at which point her flirtations with magical realism shifting toward a darker obsession with potential to harness the interplay of light, shadows and skin in the conjuring of malevolent maledictions.

Francesca Woodman’s confrontation for confrontation’s sake ethos is very punk rock—unshaven armpits and pubic hair, the gritty B&W; the highly sexualized nature of her work, how that work rigorously thwarts the proprietorial gaze of the traditional male spectator.