At thirteen, her artist father, George, gave Francesca Woodman a camera, a Yashica TLR. It was the principal camera she employed throughout her single decade long career. The above photograph is a rare moment of her experimenting with Large Format, she also created some rare colour images, which are included in the edit at the Victoria Miro Gallery.
Her first acknowledged photograph is a premonition of what lay ahead in her work:
Self-Portrait at Thirteen, 1972.
I believe the Victoria Miro was the perfect place for the Woodman show, anywhere too clinical would have sucked the life out of these delicate prints. The dusty floor and battered wooden staircase only complimented the images! There was a variety of print size, ranging from around 6cmx6cm, with work shown on both floors. It was very special to finally see her work in the flesh.
I am usually not enthralled by self portraiture. I am particularly picky about female portraiture (and certainly have no interest in indulging in it myself!). There are plenty of "Homages" to Woodman, black and white blurred faces and naked shapes crouched in corners, none of which could possibly contend, they actually do more harm than good (in my eyes) to contemporary female projects.
Woodman's focus on the relationship with her body as both the object of the gaze and the acting subject behind the camera is undeniable. And yet, she is often absorbed or hidden by her dilapidated, crumbling surroundings. She becomes a ghost, or a memory, not a solid female form. For someone so young, she seems delicate and certainly vulnerable. Her labyrinth surroundings are just as mystifying, with surreal mirrors and doors appearing balanced in the centre of the rooms, and mystical shapes appearing in doorways.
She is not always alone, as other hands reach into the corner of the frames, and curtains of hair rest over battered armchairs.
Much has been written about the use of the cable release in this self-portrait, as a "surrogate umbilical". And throughout Woodman’s portraits, even when there is no self-awareness of the camera, the viewer is always meant to be part of the drama as voyeur. The images were meretriciously planned, with Woodman often making sketches of what she planned to photograph first.
To me, her message is clear. She approached the language used by generations of male photographers who have used woman as a “canvas” to paint their own visions, and made a assault on this tradition. Her images are an exploration of form, texture, and light. The body as an aesthetic landscape, rather than an obvious sexual object.
Up until her untimely death in 1981, aged just 22, Francesca Woodman produced an extraordinary body of work, over 800 images are held in the archive. I find it almost impossible to believe that such mature, prolific work could be created by someone in their teens. She was a truly unique talent, and this exhibit was a wonderful showcase of her work.