The disappearing self

Francesca Woodman was a photographic artist, but also an accomplished performer who featured in most of her own work

Francesca Woodman was a photographic artist, but also an accomplished performer who featured in most of her own work. When asked why she photographed herself so often, she replied drily it was because she was always available. But her fluency as a performer in her own work is striking. The most celebrated exemplar of inventive self-portraiture is probably Cindy Sherman, but compared to her static tableaux, Woodman is quicksilver in her images, often no more than a blur, a glimpse, sliding off the edge of the photograph, blending into the wall or just a vague hint in the shadows.

Which is why, when she died aged only 22, after throwing herself out of the window of her Manhattan loft, her legacy of spectral, evanescent self-images suddenly acquired a disturbing, premonitory force. It was as though they were a long rehearsal for her actual disappearance, just as much as the failed suicide bid that preceded the real thing. These two factors - a surprisingly substantial, remarkably rich and coherent body of work by one so young, and an early death - are the perfect ingredients for the creation of an artistic myth and, sure enough, Woodman's career has blossomed since she died in January 1981.

The evidence suggests that she killed herself when she was dispirited by a series of minor setbacks and was slightly out of control: emotionally adrift, on antidepressants, drinking. Yet at the time of her death she was showing work in a reputable gallery, had just published a book of her photographs, Some Disordered Interior Geometries, and had a ticket to fly to Rome to stay with a friend.

Neither pills nor alcohol showed up in the autopsy. "I would rather die young, leaving various accomplishments . . . instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things," she had written in a letter to that friend in Italy. She was born into an artistic family, with a painter father, a ceramicist mother and an elder brother who makes installations. She grew up in rural Colorado and regularly visited Italy. From the age of 13, encouraged by a teacher at her East Coast boarding school, she started to take photographs, going on to study photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. She was, by all accounts, a precocious student.


It's not that she was an astoundingly original talent. To some extent, she was influenced by a vogue for photo-narratives like those of Duane Michals. The look of her work evokes the shadowy imaginative space of the Symbolists, and the surrealist photography of Man Ray. She, and indeed Cindy Sherman, also have an important precursor in the shape of the pseudonymous Claude Cahun (a woman, incidentally, despite the name), the surrealist photographer, actress and writer, whose androgynous, shaven-headed appearance was a personal stage on which to play out dramas of identity.

Like Cahun, Woodman was both the observer and the observed. Like many contemporary artists, her body became the site for her art. Yet her work is exceptionally assured and consistent. From the first, she had a precise sense of the distinctive kind of image she was looking for: soft, tonal, sensual, mysterious. She almost invariably took her photographs in interiors and sought out locations with a suitable air of abandonment.

She collected junk-shop props, like old furs and dresses, and other once-prized trappings of others' domestic lives. She both identified with and tested herself against this invented, tired environment, interrogating her own presence, its physicality, its sexuality, its putative identities. Although it seems, in hindsight, that she knew what she was doing and did it incredibly well, she was apparently dissatisfied.

The photographs of Francesca Woodman can be seen at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin until July 21st