The Student Photographer Who Still Fascinates Us Three Decades After Her Tragic Death

Once there was a very talented photographer, whose life story became more popular than her actual work.

Have you ever seen a photograph and think about the person who took it? The artist who was looking at the same image you’re looking at right now. What were they thinking? Why did they take that specific shot in that particular way? Many times we assume specific interpretations for works of art, especially if they're non-verbal, and it’s okay, because in many cases the artists themselves aim for that, to let our imagination fly. However, that’s not always the case. There are moments in which people interpret an artwork based on the artist's personality and statements. Very often art lovers mistake the artistic intention with the real self, which are not the same thing. That was the case of a very famous photographer from the 1980s, whose life ended in tragedy, and because of this, people couldn’t help but create the bleakest stories around the artist and her work.

Almost every article and video you’ll get to read about Francesca Woodman’s life will most probably revolve around her suicide at a very young age. While it’s tragic to read about a talented 22-year-old taking her own life, there is so much more to this fascinating photographer that people are missing out. So I’ll try to ease the evident bleakness of her story, and introduce you to the other side of this artist’s life.

The date was April 3, 1958. The place, Denver, Colorado. Born among artists, Francesca Woodman was destined to find passion through art. Since her father was a painter, her mother a sculptor, and her brother a video artist, there was no way Francesca wouldn’t develop a sensitive perception of the world. Photography became her weapon of choice when she was only a teenager. In 1975, her passion for the visual life eventually took her to Providence, where she developed her artistic technical skills at the Rhode Island School of Design, which is actually one of the oldest art schools in the US.

The student life gave her so much material to be inspired from, but as ambitious as she was, Francesca decided to look for further opportunities. In 1978, after acquiring her Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts, Francesca got the chance to exhibit her first pictorial series, entitled “Swan Song,” at the Woods-Gerry Gallery.

After her first achievement as an established photographer, Francesca moved to New York, where she was able to do a couple of exhibitions at small galleries. This experience gave her ideas for further work and ways of presenting it. During this period, Woodman oscillated between color and black & white photography, but eventually leaned towards the second one. She also explored new ways of approaching her images, such as diazotypes (a photograph or photocopy produced on a surface by coating with a solution containing a diazo compound that is decomposed on exposure to light).

Francesca’s work often displayed herself, not because she was praising her image or something like that. In Woodman’s words, it was more practical to work with oneself: you were always available for yourself, and there was no need to direct someone who may not comprehend the composition or the intention of the picture. So it was more of a matter of convenience. She would often play with long exposure, leading to blurry but dynamic and mesmerizing pictures. George Woodman, Francesca’s father, would often describe her experimental photography as “sensual, playful, and sometimes obscure.”

During the first days of 1981, Francesca published Some Disordered Interior Geometries, one of the multiple books she had been working on since 1976. By this point, she had an amazing collection of more than 800 photographs. Unfortunately, not so long after this, Woodman took her life, and a wave of morbidity came with this terrible incident. People theorized about the “evident” suicidal tendencies that her pictures showed. They even suggested that the use of monochromatic presentations was also a sign of her inner sorrow. However, her parents strongly disagree with this. Betty Woodman, Francesca’s mother, explained once:

“Her life wasn’t a series of miseries. She was fun to be with. It’s a basic fallacy that her death is what she was all about, and people read that into the photographs. They psychoanalyze them (...). They see the photographs as very personal. But that’s not the way I approach them. They’re often funny.”

Fortunately, there was a silver lining to this. Five years after Francesca took her life, her work started to spread and gain fame, partly because of her tragic death, but also because her photographs were unique and worth sharing. Solo shows were offered to honor her work and consequently, new photography amateurs began to use her pictures as inspiration for their own creations.

Francesca Woodman’s story sure had an unfortunate ending; nevertheless her life was much more than just her suicide. Her talent should always be the main topic when we talk about her. She created a series of images that were original and genuinely beautiful. She was inspiring, and this is what must remain relevant for years to come.


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